On September 22, the sun crossed the celestial equator, moving southward, and leaving in its wake an equal measure of hours between sunrise to sundown and back again. And just like that—in the space of a single day—summer passed on, and into the history books another Autumn Equinox was written.
But fall in Birmingham is a tricky rascal. Though it seems to come upon us as suddenly as a haunt, stealing the last of the summer tomatoes and Silver Queen corn, autumn is a season that’s over as quickly as it begins. Just when we have begrudgingly agreed to surrender our shorts for sweaters and made room in our fridges for quarts of cider, fall is gone without so much as a by-your-leave.
This year, however, we are prepared. We have a plan. Autumn hasn’t caught us unawares, leaving our heads spinning from summer with only cold winter nights to look forward to. We are ready for ragweed (we know where you bloom, you devil), and our gardens are primed, planted and prepared to offer up broccoli, beets and bok choy to spare. So bring it on, autumn. We see you coming, and we’ve got your number.
Don’t be fooled. Drivers aren’t the only living creatures jockeying for position along the 280 corridor. The trees that canopy the crags of Red Mountain are struggling to hang onto their top-rung positions too, especially in the fall, when they are most vulnerable to being toppled by the up-and-comers.
“The hierarchy of trees is they are always battling for light. Some grow big and tall and strong and spread out, leaving less light for smaller trees in the understory, who are happy to not fight the big monsters and accept the filtered light that reaches them,” says Robbie Fearn, executive director of Ruffner Mountain Nature Center. “The teenagers of the forest, though, are waiting to grow up over the big guys, or waiting for a big storm to come up and knock them out. Then they’ll take the opening and push their way up.”
The battle for top tree gets especially intense as autumn sets in, Fearn adds, because as days get shorter, there’s literally less light to go around. Which causes another phenomenon to occur, one that unfurls in colorful splendor in the oaks, maples, and nut trees that thrive in the mountainous terrain surrounding the Magic City. Less sunlight triggers the trees to back off the chlorophyll-fueled photosynthesis that makes the leaves green, allowing their true colors to shine through. The result: an autumn palette of umbers and ochres, scarlet and tobaccoey browns on full and proud display through November, barring any major storms that snatch leaves from limbs.
As Birmingham’s 1,036-acre “oasis,” Ruffner Mountain is home to more than 300,000 of the city’s trees and a prime spot for leaf peeping. Miles of mapped trails offer a birds-eye view of fall foliage, as well as more than 500 species of plants and wildflowers, many of which are now in season, such as Larkspur, Pokeweed, Prickly Pear, and False Nettle. That’s not to mention the yellow-rump warblers, squirrels and other forest critters you’re likely to spot.
“We like to say to people that there’s time in the fall for something other than football, and one of the best things you can do for your kids is get out in the woods with them and appreciate the natural wonders that are here for all of us to treasure,” Fearn says.
Best Leaf Peeping Spots
1214 81st Street
Birmingham, AL 35206
Vulcan Park and Museum
1701 Valley View Drive
Birmingham, AL 35209
Birmingham Botanical Gardens
2612 Lane Park Road
Birmingham, Alabama 35223
It may all over but the crying for tomatoes, corn and cukes, but butternut squash is about to have its day. So don’t put away that trowel so fast, says gardening expert Charlie Thigpen—there are still vegetables to be had.
“You can plant so many edibles in the fall. Right now you can set out beets, broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, carrots, chard, kale, lettuce, radishes, sugar snap peas, collard greens, turnip greens and mustard greens,” says Thigpen, the owner of Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery, located at Pepper Place.
If your green thumb is not quite as developed as Thigpen’s, his best advice is to simply take a closer look at the lay of the land around you, and stop to read the tags that come on the plants you purchase.
“Know your light conditions before you plant. Do you have deep shade, partial shade or a sunny site? Do you get morning sun or late afternoon sun? Many people just buy a pretty flower and never look at its light requirement,” Thigpen says. “And read the plant’s tags. Most plants from reputable nurseries have plant tags that will provide you with valuable information. They usually tell you the plant’s light requirement, height and width, which will tell you where it should be planted and how it should be spaced. If your plants don’t have tags, Google them. There is so much information out there and you really need to know how and where plants should be set out in the landscape to be successful.”
Charlie Thigpen’s Garden Gallery
2805 2nd Ave. S, Ste 300
Birmingham, AL 35233
Speaking of things that bloom. Ahem. If you suffer from allergies or asthma, steer clear of the goldenrod and ragweed—but don’t think that will save you. According to Dr. John Anderson of the Alabama Allergy and Asthma Center, you’re vulnerable practically anywhere in the naked city, no matter how far you live from the nearest thatch of autumn pollen producers.
“It’s not the weeds that are blooming in your backyard, but the weeds that are growing in your neighborhood,”Dr. Anderson says. “Even if you’re in a city with less vegetation, you’re still susceptible—windborne pollens can travel for miles.”
But then again, knowledge is power.
“I think we’re in for a bad fall. We’ve had proper conditions for a lot of weed growth, so I expect fall pollen will be bad,” says Dr. Anderson. “Allergy sufferers can prepare for it. If you’re on medications now, adhere to them. Have them ready should symptoms flare up. Match the use of medication to the degree of your symptoms. Mild symptoms? Use an as-needed antihistamine. If symptoms persist chronically or acutely, talk with your doctor.”
If you’re wondering what’s behind those sniffles and wheezes—an upper respiratory infection or the onset of allergies or asthma, only time will tell, Dr. Anderson says. “As we enter the colder weather months, there is also an increase in upper respiratory infections, which have similar symptoms to allergies. Most of those are viral and short lived. Within three to five days, an individual should start to feel better. If not, it would be reasonable to assume it’s an allergy.”
As far as homeopathic relief goes, the doc advises a nice hot shower, along with saline rinses and sprays. A steaming bowl of soup isn’t a bad idea either, he adds. “I haven’t prescribed it yet, but it’s not out of the question.”
Alabama Allergy and Astha Center
504 Brookwood Boulevard
Birmingham, AL 35209
Fall Fire Safety
It’s no coincidence that October is Fire Prevention Month. In Birmingham, space heaters are the second leading cause of fires, second only to unattended cooking, and followed by careless smoking habits.
City Fire Marshal Cordell Mardis says October to February is known as “fire season,” when people are most likely to improperly use heating equipment sparking damaging, and sometimes fatal, fires.
“With winter coming up we want to focus on forming an exit plan to have in place in the event of a fire. The theme is ‘Have Two Ways Out,’ so that every adult and child in the home knows two ways out of the house in an emergency,” Mardis says, who also serves as a battalion chief for the Birmingham Fire and Rescue Department.
Because prevention is the key to fire safety, the fire department will also kick its free smoke alarm giveaways back into high gear this fall. More than 60,000 smoke alarms have been doled out to Birmingham city residents since the program launched in 2003, and during that same period, fire fatalities have dropped almost 50 percent, Mardis says. Before the program was instituted, the city suffered an average of 15 fire fatalities a year—that number is now seven or eight, with the exception of a spike in 2011. “We had 13 last year. But with money from grants and the city of Birmingham, we have refurbished supplies.”
And if you have any ideas about burning those fall leaves after raking them, think twice. According to Mardis, it’s illegal to burn leaves in the city, and a hazard to the ozone because of the chemicals released upon ignition. Ignoring that law will likely be met with a visit from the fire department and a fine from the Jefferson County Health Department, he says. “Put them in a bag and let the city pick them up.”
Free Smoke Detectors
Birmingham Fire Prevention Bureau