WE NOW see how sensible we were to plant a dozen or so chrysanthemums last spring, for a little color in the fall. I do not like the big ones much, mainly because the space I have seems to call for little mounds and tufts of color. The truth is, the chrysanthemums have to share congested quarters in a long narrow strip in which I give them a toe-hold, yes, in excellent soil, but they have to do most of their growing out in the path.
A red one called 'Scarleteer's is exceptionally reliable and hardy with me. One year I made cuttings in the spring of the chrysanthemums that had survived the winter outdoors, thinking that as usual there would be yellow, bronze, white, lavender-pink and so forth, but that year we were almost solid with the rich red ones. 'Scarleteer' had survived intact, where the yellow 'Jackpot' and 'Classic' and the rest had not.
Needless to say, I had a map of all the chrysanthemums, and could easily have checked with clumps had pulled through and which had not, but since there seemed to be plenty, I just went right ahead and made the cuttings - knowing I liked all the varieties. In the future I will check, and not wind up with too many of one color and an absence of the other.
There is odd bent, you will notice, on the part of gardeners to start increasing the size of flowers. Among the chrysanthemums, for instance, everybody agreed it would be a good thing to have varieties that mounded up to the size of a bushel basket, covered with hundreds of small bright flowers. Very good.
But no sooner did gardeners bask in the merits of this sort of plant than they discovered that the varieties offered for sale were getting bigger and bigger. Thus 'Classic' has flowers the size of small dahlias, and however pretty they may be, the plant does not accomplish the effect of a yellow cushion of bloom.
This year 'French Vanilla,' a dirty off-white, has blooms the size of an orange. It is handsome enough in itself, dull white touched with rose-brown-madder, but hardly what one had in mind for garden decoration. My colleague in the garden, who can always be relied on to rally to the cause of stray cats, etc., is quite fond of it.
It is not just chrysanthemum fanciers, of course, who keep improving small-flowered types of plants into basketballs on toothpicks.
Iris growers (who of all people ought to be most alert to scale and elegance, since they deal with the greatest prince of the vegetable kingdom) are even worse. The dwarf irises that bloom with tulips are actively dumpy, and great numbers of varieties among the knee-high irises are seriously engorged.
Among roses - and rose growers are largely dedicated to the aim of producing blooms that would choke a hippopotamus - it does not suffice to allow a mid-thigh bush to produce flowers the size of Ping Pong balls. They must be the size of saucers.
Somewhere along the line, in virtually all garden flowers, the idea has arisen that a plant with big flowers is showier than a plant with small flowers. And yet, as everybody knows who thinks about it, an evergreen magnolia in full bloom with foot-wide flowers is not showy at all, while a common peach tree, with flowers an inch or so wide, is startling in its display of bloom.
The old rambler, 'American Pillar,' is not a favorite rose of mine, but surely it makes the point that a plant with small flowers and plenty of them is more striking, usually, than a similar plant with large flowers and fewer of them.
Not that showiness is the sole criterion, or even the main one, for garden merit. But even on the gross ground of opulent display, it is commonly an error to increase the size of a flower.
Some of one's best friends are large, and I have grown with delight those roses (like 'Paul Neyron') that reach seven inches in diameter when well fed with manure. I also love irises of exceptional size, and a dahlia the size of a dishpan seems to me a perfectly sane goal.
But nature is not essentially gigantesque. Insects, for example, are nearer the average size of animal than an elephant is.
A garden will not satisfy the gardener long (assuming the gardener grows in the usual way, coming to love balance, richness, depth, more than sheer expanse of vermillon) if he gives too much of his attention to huge blooms merely.
Everyone knows this, if he only stops to think of it. Nobody imagines (or very few) the way to brighten a city is to paint all the public buildings orange, and the sidewalks purple.We sense, somehow, that we would tire of it.
One reason the usual rose garden is ugly is simply that the plants are graceless, however dandy they may be for producing fine roses. Irises last in glory so short a time, a couple of weeks in the year, that they are gone before it dawns on us they have gone too far. But they too would cloy if we had them all year.
We could be happy, of course, with a five-acre field solid with irises and not another plant in it. Such a garden might, however, lack balance. And there is something in nature (if not the gardener) that warns against excess. A moderate excess is fine, when the irises and peonies bloom, and late tulips like 'Orange Parrot' and 'Orange Beauty' and the pansies and Oriental poppies and the China roses - that is fine.
I justify it as a sort of general eastering over death and a smart reminder to hell itself that we are sons of light. But like any climax, any overwhelming splendor, it is not meant to go on day after day.
When Achilles was warned by the goddess and dismissed her warning, choosing sweat and pain and honor even over the light of the sun, the gods themselves stood still. As his chronicler Homer did not mind making amply clear, it was quite a day. The great flowers, so to speak, all bloomed at once.
But like a good gardener, the poet will surmised that one Achilles, per epic was enough, and that even with Achilles, one session surpassing even the gods was plenty.
Achilles in glory, briefly and forever, is like the garden with irises and roses. All the rest to come is colored by that day, so short, in which such heights were claimed and reached that no mortal rib cage could function well if went on day by day.
To surpass the gods is not a normal state, and Achilles did not attempt it long. Something less glorious, both in heroes and in gardeners, is the daily need. Not merely because neither the man nor the gardener can sustain such a pitch for long, but also - and even more importantly - because even glory itself in its most blinding essence, has no meaning unless there is grayness, like the sober walls of gardens, all around it.