Autumn begins like a whisper, stirring among the trees. One green leaf turns gold. We barely notice until the treetops are aflame with light. Through shortening days and lengthening nights, the transformation is guileless in its beauty.
Drawn to awe by the humble grandeur of what has given its all, we reach for ways to keep the glory with us a little longer.
“This is a season to cherish. It is fleeting. We need to etch it in our minds,” said Linda Sadler, motioning to a single red leaf in the yellow celebration festooning the gray branches of her ash tree. Linda is a colleague of mine at Tagawa Gardens, an experienced perennial team member, and a garden coach.
“I’ve always loved beautiful things,” Sadler enthused as we stood on her brick walkway in Centennial, framed by leaning verbena bonariensis sparkling in the late afternoon light.
In a walk around her home, we admired the chartreuse glow of New Mexico privet, the balletic arch of lavatera, the stout tufts of Redbor kale, the yellow-gold airiness of Amsonia hubrichtii, and the slender cabernet leaves of euphorbia Bonfire.
“If I want a plant, I will have it,” Sadler said with conviction, touching the specimen plants that she has gone far and wide to procure for her garden.
“When I just think I’m going to be done with my garden, it lasts about a day, and at night, I’m already dreaming of what I’m going to plant next,” she laughed ruefully.
Sadler dries as much loveliness as she plants. As we wandered inside, her daughter, Katie, recalled Christmas cookie tins filled with silica gel and dried flowers. Linda instantly pulled one such tin from beneath an upholstered chair, running her fingers through bright remnants of petals.
More natural treasures awaited us in every elegant room. A garland of leaves dangled above a pristine white mantel. A clutch of dried fern fronds arched delicately near a small lamp, its gold stem entwined by perennial statice and masterwort. An atlas from the study revealed a trove of burgundy and gold leaves. A blush of hydrangea lay on an end table.
Most spectacular was a white chandelier hung with single dried stems of roses, peonies, paperwhites, hydrangea and larkspur. Even a white tulip held its fragile form.
For the Thanksgiving table that will soon be arrayed beneath, Linda hollows a white pumpkin, settles a glass vessel inside, and creates a natural centerpiece with wild stems and white snowberry from her garden.
For Vanessa Martin, a fallen leaf is a muse. Detailing the simple elements of nature, Martin’s botanical work brings to life what may otherwise be overlooked.
Taking a walk nearly every day in her Aurora neighborhood, she doesn’t set out to find something but to simply see what’s there. “I do what’s in front of me,” she said.
A fallen leaf on the sidewalk, a tulip in the garden, a bird on a branch — these simplicities become the story of her art. “They are silly little stories, but that is how it becomes meaningful.”
“No one would have guessed that I would become an artist,” Martin laughed, sharing her journey through commercial real estate before finding her way into the School of Botanical Art and Illustration at Denver Botanic Gardens. “I made it work. I was determined, because I loved doing it. I would travel and go right from the airport to class. If you really want to do something, you will find a way.”
Fusing traditional botanical illustration with what she calls a pinch of contemporary style, Martin wants her art to be accessible to a large audience.
“People are part of my process. It is not enough for me to just create something,” she said. She recognizes an emerging hunger for art in a younger audience, stirring her hope that it will be appreciated by a new generation.
After many years using watercolor, colored pencils and graphite, Martin discovered printmaking. Much of her current work is Intaglio. Arranging several prints on the table for me to see, Martin plies multiple artistic techniques to create texture, dimension and subtle color in her work.
“With abstract, you have to stand back; with mine, you have to get close,” Martin said.
While Martin’s artistry has developed through the years, her work is still grounded by frequent walks and the long-held desire to “inspire art lovers to appreciate the beauty of a dried fallen leaf or a yucca pod that has spilled its seeds.”
Supplied by nature
Many years ago, Martin’s exquisite yucca pod became my first piece of botanical art. I am enthralled by seed pods.
Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve displayed dramatic stems and natural arrangements. Borne of the Nebraska prairie, I inherited this delight from my grandma and my mom. Our hands are the same, reaching for simple treasures and finding in them the joy we need to go on.
While visiting Nebraska for harvest this September, I ventured into the prairie with a small pruning shear, filling my arms with arching grasses, glittering goldenrod, and weathered seed heads. Returning to Denver with this autumn trove, I arranged the stems by color and arrayed them in vases, just as I have done since childhood.
But what wildness is here to harvest in our suburban Colorado gardens? Determined to create from my own doorstep, I studied each of my unsuspecting garden plants for new possibilities. After several excursions through the backyard and various closets, I gathered a surprising tangle of dried seed heads and craft supplies. With sturdy hollyhock, slender obedient plant, dried poppy heads, blush pink sedum, and two Queen Elizabeth roses crumpled by first frost, I made a simple dried wreath for the front door.
It was the same front door where a purple finch nested in the trailing begonia this year. After she and her watchful mate raised their brood, the little nest remained — a token of their patient artistry. I saved the nest and arranged it on a shelf with a small book, a framed flower from Ireland, a piece of Eastern European pottery holding two allium heads, and a clear jar of downy milkweed seeds that I’ve had for at least a decade.
As with most treasures, it simply begins with noticing and cherishing what you have. This is what my grandma and my mom taught me, their hands turning simplicity into special beauty.
Even after it is spent, the garden continues to give. Take to your own garden with an eye for possibility. What might you create with what you have?
Pick up a leaf, hold it in your hand, or press it into the pages of a beloved book. Take the beauty into your soul, and in that earnest way, bring the outdoors in.
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