NO FLOWER is more beautiful (if you sit right down and think about it) than the gladiolus, but it behaves so well and presents so few problems that it is somewhat despised.
Florists grow it by the billion. I guess it is the cheapest flower sold in shops. Over the years it has accumulated a wobbly aura of hospital rooms, public funerals and thin wallets.
It we had never seen a gladiolus and then ran into a display of them at the Philadelphia or Chelsea garden shows, we would all be saving our money and doing whatever was necessary to cultivate it.
Now my own notion is that it is too much used as a cut flower and not used enough as a garden ornament.
Because it holds up as a cut flower, it is commonly believed there is no point growing it for any other reason; and since you can buy cut gladioli as cheap as you can grow them, why bother?
But my enlightment began at the age of 10 when for a dime I acquired 20 gladiolus cormels (new, small bulb-like corms the size of peas) from a dealer.
Amazingly, they produced fine large stalks of flowers.
This led me to think, wrongly, that there was no point buying older, larger corms. The truth is that some varieties produce flowers from cormels -- the old 'Picardy' did -- but most require another year or two of growing to do so.
The best size corm is about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, almost globular. This sort of corm will usually produce the finest stalk of which the variety is capable.
Sometimes I see huge pancake-looking corms 3 inches in diameter, and I always feel like warning people not to buy them -- since for all their great size, they do not produce good flowers.
One year I planted some of these huge corms (after a couple of years, your original 1 1/2-inch corm becomes a huge creature) just to see what would happen. They produced the usual 5-foot stalks. But the next year, persisting with these huge corms, they barely flowered at all. So it is perfectly true, as all the books and specialists say: You should acquire the corms that suggest an English walnut, not a hamburger.
The blooms have the same quality that irises or orchids or lillies do; that is, flawless texture, shape, color -- and in addition, they take far less space than most first-class plants.
I am sure everybody last fall dug his heavy soil about 15 inches deep, so it will be in fine shape by mid-March. Nothing is simpler than opening a trench 6-inches deep, setting the gladiolus corms at the bottom (perhaps on a 1-inch cushion of sand) and sitting back to await results.
We have frosts, perhaps, after the corms are planted but no harm is done. The shoots emerge in perhaps a month, and the first flowers come in mid to late June, depending on variety and on how warm the early spring is.
You can't tell by looking at the corm, but some gladioli flower in 65 days, others in 100 days, depending a bit on the weather but chiefly on the inborn timetable of that variety. Thus the sorts called "early" are called that merely because they bloom in about 65 or 70 days from the time of planting, while the ones called "late" bloom in 92 or 100 days from planting.
Nothing is simpler, if you want an early variety to bloom along with a late variety, than to calculate the number of days each sort requires for growth, and make your planting accordingly.
If you plant 100 corms about the first of April -- perhaps not knowing what the flowers will be like -- you will have flowers from mid-June into mid-July, since some will be through blooming before others ever show color.
As a small experiment, I planted: glads from a grocery store (supermarkets sometimes sell them for the hell of it) and found them excellent, the colors mainly red or yellow with a few whites.
But of course it makes sense to buy them from specialists or from dealers that make a speciality of them (for example: Scheeplers, Inc., 63 Wall Street, New York, N.Y. 10005). That way, instead of hoping you'll get plenty of whites or yellows or whatever colors you especially like, you can buy the colors you want and no others.
Also, suppose you want yellow glads for a certain part of the garden for as long of a season as possible?
You will be able, by consulting the list that tells whether the flower is early, mid-season or late, to plant 'Candle Glow,' 'Limelight' and 'Golden Sunshine,' which will give a long season indeed, especially if the early sorts are planted in mid-March and the late sorts are planted in June. You would then be able to rely on yellow glads from mid-June to October.
Needless to say (except that new gardeners do not know) the individual corm produces one spike of bloom that lasts a week in flower and then is done. So for flowers from June through October you have to plant the corms at different times, say once every 10 days, from mid-March until mid-June. You can plant them into July, for that matter; and if the fall is warm, you can have them blooming into November.
Unfortunately, for many town gardeners, the gladiolus likes full sun. They will grow with only half-sun. That is, they will grow and bloom in an open sunny bed that is shaded a bit in the morning from trees to the east and in the afternoon by trees to the west.
But they will not do at all in shady gardens, or among azaleas under trees, or between hydrangeas along a shady walk, etc.
They will grow where roses or tomatoes will. The more shade they get (even out in the sunniest part of the garden) the less magnificent the spikes will be. But, from necessity, I once grew some on the north side of some peony bushes, in a spot that was just barely sunny enough for the peonies to bloom. The glads bloomed, but nothing like as well as the same variety bloomed in a sunnier spot.
Not everybody likes big gladioli, and they should therefore not grow them. I like them about 6 feet tall myself. It is fun (for me, at least) to grow them in good soil in sun, about a foot apart (though for cutting they are sometimes grown with the corms only 3 inches apart). Of course, you have to tie the stalk to the stake.
It also is fun, where only a few glads are grown, to cultivate each plant after a rain or heavy watering, to see that they get soaked once a week, and to give them two or three doses of fertilizer, starting when the shoots are only about 6-inches high.
In this way, if you choose naturally tall varieties like 'Orange Chiffon,' 'Limelight,' 'landmark' and so on, you will have stalks more than 6-feet tall. '
"What can you do with them?" someone will ask.
And I reply: The same thing you do with an oak -- you admire them.
Now I well know the temptation to grow one each of 150 varieties. Once I acquired one corm each of 15 varieties and grew them, staked, wth high culture. The result was superb flowers, but of course they did nothing much for color masses in the gardens.
The Japanese commonly grow flowers just to admire, all by themsellves, with no regard to the overall appearance of the garden. In just the same way, a farmer may have a little patch in which he grows the largest pumpkin or the most enormous sunflower he can manage.
But in town gardens, usually there is no sunny spot that can be set aside, and whatever flowers are grown are necessarily part of the garden.
It is possible, in such cases, to make a stab at coherence.
The glads do not have to be grown in a solid bed or solid row, but can be used here and there. Many would be surprised how showy even 10 corms of one variety can be, planted several feet apart.
I know that some people greatly love zinnias and marigolds -- I do, myself, except I have too little space in full sun to feel generous in giving them the space they require. (There are irises and lillies and roses and peonies, after all, competing for sun, and it is asking a bit much to give their space to zinnias and marigolds.)
But suppose the main ornament of the garden is a small goldfish pool beyond the paved place where you sit, maybe under a grape arbor.
And suppose there is a background of yews or junipers or hollies, and that for summer you want color, long after the great flowers (irises) are past.
Well, you could acquire 10 corms each of the early, midseason and late yellow glads.
You could plant yellow 'Peter Pan' zinnias and 'Yellow Nugget' marigolds.
You could plant a few yellow snapdragons.
You could use a couple of yellow water lilies in the pool . . .
Maybe a few yellow petunias . . .
And 'Golden Glean' nasturtiums spilling out of tubs.
In this way you could have your summer flowers of many sorts, without any great masses of any of them, and yet there would be a greater coherence and harmony than is usual because you chose one color in all of them.
Needless to say, you could do the same thing with red or orange or white or blue. The result is not monotonous, as you might first think, and of course the theme need not be followed slavishly.
As far as that goes, you can have gladioli, zinnias, marigolds, snapdragons and everything else in the world in every color obtainable, all mixed up in one great jumble, and I am very sorry to have to say that such an arrangement is often charming.
But I always think it is good for a gardener to try, for just one year, something different. Instead of mixed zinnias and marigolds and so on, try just one color and plenty of it, and see if you like the results better.
Once I had some glazed tiles from Spain in a Moorish design of yellow, red, black, green, orange, white -- and the design itself very involved.
For several years I just looked at them, thinking they were too gaudy and violent to use in the garden. Then (because I needed a few tiles for the cement coating around a horse trough) I used several of them, tentatively.
The surprising thing is that all the colors cancel each other out, and the tiles are very quiet in effect. The really gaudy tiles are the ones that are blue and white.
Now when you have many annuals of many colors, the result often is not that "riot" you expect and perhaps hoped for (for many of us gardeners have vulgar taste) but instead something fairly (dare I say it) dull.
The same space given to flowers of all scarlet, say, may be quite brilliant.
Not to say blinding. And more what you want.
Finally, let me say that brilliant as the colors of gladioli are, they consort pretty well together, even in mixed beds of dozens of different colors. cIt's not a bad idea to soak the bulbs for hours (before planting) in a solution of four teaspoons of Lysol to a gallon of water, and be sure to throw the solution away when you're done so the dog doesn't drink it. This controls thrips, the only pest to speak of. Even that is not usually necessary, but I like to do it.