THERE IS nothing like the first hot days of spring when the gardener stops wondering if it's too soon to plant the dahlias and starts wondering if it's too late.
For even the most beautiful weather will not allay the gardener's notion (well-founded, actually) that he is somehow too late, too soon, or that he has too much stuff going on or not enough. For the garden is the stage on which the gardener exults and agonizes out every crest and chasm of the heart.
Now of course May will bring us the most awful days of the entire year, in which the sky suddenly turns gray and the temperature drops to the point one needs a coat, and this lasts three to five days and then all is well again until the first sky-wrecking torrential rain of June.
It was the poet Hopkins, who was not even a gardener but who nevertheless learned a thing or two just by thinking about things, who noticed that the great pleasures of life come rather incidentally, and not at all as the result of much craft and planning.
We all know by now that as the irises and roses and peonies reach a great climax we are likely to have a storm so severe it batters flower stalks and blooms to nothing. So we are braced for it.
And then there will come a day in which things we do not expect all bloom together and the light is of some curious quality and all things take on a glow and richness that transfigures them.
This year I was alarmed at the failure of the great ditch grass (Arundo donax, which is said to have played some sort of role in the draining of malarial swamps in Italy) to appear as soon as it should have. But now I see its conical spikes pushing up. In Washington it rarely sprouts out from its old stalks but starts up new every year. My neighbors always inquire, when this grass first overtops the fence in June, if I am growing corn, since that's what it looks like if you don't see much when you look.
A plant that is supposed to do nicely in ill-drained heavy earth without full sun is Peltiphyllum peltatum, which in April sends up little stalks only a foot high, decked with clear rose-colored saucers half an inch wide, in clusters at the top. It is nothing much to see, but there it is. Before the flower passes, the leaves begin rising from the ground, and they are circular, pleated, all squnched up like a moth's wings fresh from the cocoon. These leaves in a few weeks grow to a foot or so in width, borne on a stem (one leaf to the stem) of ample strength to withstand any weather. They are like water-lily leaves rising out of dry land.
It's a new plant with me, but I have greatly admired its effect by the waterside of certain gardens.
In Williamsburg recently a kind gardener gave me some cowslips, the pale-yellow unimproved sort you don't see much now. I used to grow them in a town with longer and hotter summers than here, and they protested every July by going dormant, but revived a bit in the fall and bloomed heavily every spring.
The primroses usually seen in spring gardens here are varieties of the Polyanthus hybrids, in yellow, white, mauve, crimson, blue and orange. Just now is the time they rather like being dug up (if they have been growing along for two or three years). To the gardener's surprise, the old clumps fell apart in the hand, almost, and each tuft has its own roots, so that nothing is more easily increased by division than these flowers.
They like a cool moist (certainly not boggy) root run and can take a surprising amount of rotted manure off and on throughout the year. They are gross feeders for all their small stature. They often put out flowers in December and January, though the main flush of color comes from them with the early daffodils. But it is agreeable in winter to see one or two flowers nestled down in the leaves. They do not split up or divide so readily at other times of the years as they do in May.
Dahlias and gladoili, if not already planted out, can go in now and you can keep planting them for the next month or so.
Within reason, the later you plant a gladiolus the quicker it blooms. If you plant it in mid-March it may take it 100 days or more to flower, while the same corm planted out in mid-May may bloom in 70 days. I allow 90 days for gladioli (some varieties bloom in 60-odd days, others in 100 days) but if planted late in July you have to allow for the effect of cooler nights in early fall. I have never planted them as late as August, but suspect they would do well enough, provided the gardener didn't go into fits if an early freeze got them.
Coral bells (Heuchera ) bridge the gap between late daffodils and tulips, and the heavy flowering of peonies. Here the spring is so jammed up and comes on so quickly that we do not have to wait many days between the first flowers of spring and the last. Even so, there are a few days when columbines and honesty and coral bells and woodruff seem to be the main things going.
In a garden across the river in Virginia there is a solid bed of coral bells that I envy. It is rather large and it goes on blooming into July.
My own coral bells never do well, possibly because I grow a number of things on top of them that shade them grievously through the summer. All the same I expect them to bloom like mad in the spring and of course they don't.
As every reader of garden books knows, you want to keep coral bells from rising too far out of the ground. Their crowns keep getting higher and higher. It is not clear to me how you can make them go back down. I have tried putting sand and leaf mold on them, building the soil higher, and I have dug them up and replanted them lower. Neither ploy has worked very well. But this merely evades the main trouble, of growing too many things around them so they have no real chance.
The wild Japanese Iris tectorum, in its white form, was the first iris to open this year with me. It is as beautiful as any flower but only a foot tall, so it makes no great show, even if you have a whole bed of it. It is one of those plants you should keep coming along from seed, since it is not long-lived, and besides it quickly exhausts the soil.
The tremendous Japanese iris of gardens (for the little white one is not a major garden plant) grow for me in a whiskey barrel. When I think of it, which is not often enough, I give them a flooding with the garden hose. Fortunately we do not often have to complain of a shortage of water in our springtimes, but the Japanese iris -- with white flat flowers of crumpled crepe in complicated colors -- can never have too much water from March to June. It also likes heavy mulches of manure in the winter. It likes full sun, but I have seen a very beautiful clump of it greatly shaded (though open to the south sun in early spring) by a hemlock tree.
As with many other plants, it sometimes obliges us by growing in conditions it would not have chosen for itself.