Early this morning, for the last time this year, I went out to the deck and pulled old sheets off the houseplants which have made their home outdoors since June.
I have some eight- or nine-year-old geraniums which have become geranium bushes, 4 feet tall, now covered with beautiful red flowers. I have an old jade tree which in some form or another I've been nurturing for over 40 years, when I "stole" it from my parents' house when they were divorcing.
I have two asparagus ferns, one which someone left with me to care for while she took a semester off to travel around the country-back in 1975. She said, "Would you mind watching Mr. Fern for me? I'll be back to get him someday, I promise." I have no idea what her name was at this point. I still call the plant Mr. Fern.
There are also two elderly aloe plants, one which I inherited when my grandmother died back in the '80s. There are two angel plants I got after my mom died. And I have three Christmas cactuses, all with twice as much foliage as they had when I set them out there back in June.
My houseplants tell a part of my own story. I'm sure other houseplant owners have similar tales to tell.
Part of the issue here is what do I do about the unnatural hold these plants have over me?
Start in spring
I love the time of year when I can pull them outside and let Mother Nature help me with watering and sunlight. They seem to stretch out, create new leaves, and make blossoms within a few weeks of natural living. I rearrange them a few times, adjust where the sun hits their limbs, and I cull the brown leaves and show the plants what a great world we live in. They reward me by being happy.
Inside, a few of my other large and ancient houseplants spend their entire lives by windows. My houseplant watering, however, is cut in half during the summer months. Come fall, it's time for me to think big thoughts. How many will come back in? For some, this summer was their grand finale. After growing or stretching or blossoming, some old timers clearly let go. Their leaves yellow and fall and they become "finished" and blend nicely with golden bushes and fallen leaves which gather around them.
Moving the big ones
Others, like the old geraniums, challenge me. Lifting, tugging and pulling their huge pots back indoors becomes more challenging every year.
I ask if I'm overly sentimental. Some immediately say, "YES." I ask if one more year will do. Their long limbs, which bend and climb on stakes, are familiar, like the bends in a road taken every day.
Do I prune them back to small bulbs of roots? Do I leave them outside to become one with Mother Nature's plan? Which window will they fill for the dark months ahead? What do other people do with their ancient geraniums?
I have a back porch where most of my houseplants live during the dark time. There are a lot of windows and it is a generous greenhouse. Most plants do well enough to make it through winter. Once or twice a winter I'll make a decision that a plant is unhappy, not thriving, and I'll trudge it out to the barn to rest with the potting soil and empty flower pots.
It's never enough, though. I still have an enormous number of houseplants, all which have some kind of hold over me. And this is the time of year I think about it. A lot.
Pulling in for fall
What does this mean, this act of "pulling in" at the advent of freezing nights? It's obvious that we cannot live outside unprotected all year round. We expand with such joy in the spring; we open our windows and we bring plants outdoors and we plant gardens and flower boxes and increase the space we inhabit, tying ourselves with Mother Nature while her welcome mat is still out.
And now, it's the opposite. We close our windows, bring our plants indoors, harvest our gardens, and turn them over for winter rest. We acknowledge that we cannot win. It's not demoralizing unless we let it be. It is just the swing of the pendulum, and the older we get, the more we know it swings back every time.
So as today unfolds, I'll be making space indoors for my hardy houseplants and then I'll be bringing them indoors. The deck will increase in size, and the back porch will become a greenhouse. I may be assertive enough to leave one or two plants outside for fall's cold end, but maybe not.
After all, bringing the greenery inside for the cold, dark time brings great joy-a reminder that life in the natural world does not really stop when the snow falls. And the color green makes us very happy, all year round.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths, and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book 2007.