Bugs? Blight? No, just hungry little goldfinches.
PHOTO BY SALLY BENSON

Retailers are often accused of pushing us into a holiday long before we’re ready. It can be a bit disconcerting to see Christmas decorations before school starts, but this year I was eager for fall to begin. More than ready. Finished with summer. Done.

Here in the Greater Chicagoland area, we experienced a long, cool, rather damp spring. Good for the landscapes, which soaked up the moisture and eased them into lush growth. Good for the utility bills, because it was warm enough to turn off the heat, and cool enough to delay the air conditioning. Not so good for garden centers, which saw dreary weekends and few gardeners excited about digging in the mud.

But in the upper Midwest, we know that a spring like that means summer will arrive suddenly and with a vengeance – and it did. Weeks of searing heat and no rain, followed by violent, torrential storms. Followed by weeks of oppressive heat and humidity, but no rain. Then one Friday we had more than 8 inches of rain in about eight hours; enough to keep the insurance companies busy and the garden centers empty.

I’m not a fan of heat, and I’m certainly not comfortable with humidity. I celebrate the first day of summer because it means that fall’s not that far behind. So I think I need to issue a blanket apology to all the garden centers I haunted during the last week of July, begging for fall plants to replace the summer blooms I’d potted just a couple of months before. Of course the asters weren’t there. Of course the millet wasn’t on display. The Pennisetum rubrum I’d neglected to buy in May? Gone. The fall inventory? On order.

I settled for swapping out the Temprano salmon ivy geraniums (a gorgeous color, but it doesn’t say “fall”) for vivid orange and yellow zinnas (I’m a fool for zinnias). And I took advantage of inventory-reduction sales to gather up Rudbeckia in full, autumn-colored bloom. The pots of blue salvia stayed. And the ‘Java Twist’ sedge gives that hint of a season ready to change.

These are all pretty bomb-proof plants. So imagine my dismay when I discovered, a week or so after potting, that petals were dropping. And their eyes were ragged. And the spikes were thinning. Good potting mix, a happy amount of sun, decent supplemental moisture. Reliable brands and reliable vendors. No discernable pests.

Except for the flock – and I do mean flock – of goldfinches. It took a while to catch the hungry little culprits, but they’ve been around in greater numbers this season than in past years. And in past years, they arrived at my door bit later, because that’s when I potted up the millet and the grasses and the zinnias.

I’d seen glints of yellow among the salvia, but these brilliant little birds tend to flit and are gone before you know it. Returning from a morning walk, however, I spotted three of them (three!) on one Rudbeckia, happily pecking at the eyes and tugging off petals. And when I checked the zinnias, well, there’s always another plant to pot.

It’s hard to resist the rich colors of autumn, and my little friends are enjoying a banquet. So I’m glad I rushed the season, and here’s hoping for a long, mild, make-up-for-lost-profits fall. At the rate my goldfinches are going, I’ll be supporting the effort.

Mea culpa: If you’d like to e-mail Allen Bush at Jelitto, try abush@jelitto.com. The e-mail address listed in last month’s issue is incorrect.