IT'S VERY good of us to admire spring as much as we do, considering the weather is outrageous year after year.
Summer and fall are far more reliable, and less subject to trauma, yet it is only in spring that the year achieves innocence, freshness, magnificence all at once.
Last year a number of fence posts had to be replaced to the great discombobulation of my favorite pink climbing rose, 'Mme. Gregoire Staechelin,' and her sweet, if somewhat thorny, arms were laid this way and that while the fence was being worked on.
As circumstances would have it, she spent much of the late summer flopped on that admirable pink peony, 'Mrs. F. D. Roosevelt,' and 'Nick Shaylor.' Madame was sadly butchered before the year was done -- and just here let me remind you that fixing climbing roses to fences is a good bit more trouble than it sounds in print.
The rose, with 15- or 20-foot arching stems, makes the most gorgeous sight every May, and yet I admit she is not so graceful as that handful of climbing roses (such as the white 'Felicite et Perpetue') that are pliable as rope. Madame is not very pliable, and moreover is stoutly armed. Ideally she sould be planted in the middle of one of those iron frameworks known as jungle gyms and left to flaunt as she pleases. Of course it would be hard on the children, some would say.
In any case both the rose and the peonies are blooming nicely, which is more than I deserve. Often, by the way, gardeners will notice some peony that has bloomed well for years seems to be a bit ratty and not so free with flowers.
The common recommendation is to heave the plant up in October, divide it into pieces each with five growing points, and replant in a new location. In practice, however, all that is needed in many cases is to give the plant a handful or two of commerical cow manure (the kind in bags) twice or three times at intervals of three or four weeks beginning in late May.
Once I rented a house that included a moribund plant of the admirable old crimson-flecked white peony, 'Festiva Maxima.' The trouble was that grass had been allowed to group right up to its stems. Discreet scratching (it is no place for a hoe) got rid of the grass, and very light applications of manure, followed by very light cultivation and attention to watering during droughts, brought the plant to perfection in two years.
From a plant that looked almost dead, we were rewarded with huge flowers on 50-inch stems, 25 of them. In general, I distrust manure on peonies, and darkly feel that fertilizer is a great mistake on them. But if the plant is going backward and falls off in freedom of bloom, I find nothing works better than cow manure, light cultivation and water.
Of course a central misery of peony culture in this overly forested town is simply too much shade, and nothing can be done about that short of the obvious solution to cut down half the trees.
I cannot think what has got into the hostas lately. Nature often punishes us by letting our dreams come true. I used to think nothing would be so fine as really superb development in my hosta plants. But when a single plant exceeds four feet in diameter and is an absolute vision of luxuriance (just as you always dreamed) then you think a little less success, a little less happiness, would make you happier.
There are eight varieties of hosta here, none of them rarities, and seven of them are preparing to take on the world. H. seiboldiana or H. glauca (the names of hostas are grandly confused in the trade; this is the one with large blue-gray leaves) is not often seen in such vigor that it smothers a whole clump of day lilies nearby. Another hosta ('Honey Bells') killed two-thirds of a knee-high conifer. A third one did in a clump of irises. You think, "Oh, they will adjust and work it out," but the hosta is the one that does the working.
Sometimes the gardener receives from a nursery a small plant with three or four leaves and for several years dreams of great clumps.
These dreams cease usually after the fifth year.
In an excess of generosity last year I dug into my white-edged hosta, which either is or is not 'Thomas Hogg,' to provide two gardeners with starts. Through gross carelessness I gave them more than I meant to (always a danger when digging into something) but it turned out well, for the hosta is now lustier than ever and looks fresh from a fat farm (bigger than ever but radiant).
The hosta called H. fortunei aurea maculata was received three years ago from a nursery located on Wall Street, at least the offices are, and I was terribly disappointed the first two years, since it showed no trace whatever of the beautiful patterning of apple green against chartreuse-yellow. Furthermore, the leaves were small.
All that is changed. The leaves are every bit as large as I desire, and perhaps then some, and the color contrast has been brilliant. Hostas may take a couple or three years or so to settle in and show what they really mean to do.
They admire heavy soil, plenty of sun but not too much, and lots of water. They are in heaven here. Be patient with them and they will exceed your hopes. They too, think the world of cow manure.
The late garden writer Vita Sackville West once said the bush rose called 'Chinensis mutabilis' was very good for people with freakish taste. Which included her, I guess, since she grew it. She also said Redoute painted it, but I believe that was one of those errors garden writers are forever making because they are ignorant of the facts. You will notice you go along nicely with garden writers until BANG, they say something about "freakish taste" or "rather vulgar" or "nice in a meadow" and you think up something quite withering to say to them. I usually forgive them, provided they do not bore me to death, and I forgave Vita easily enough.
Anyway, this rose is in bloom. It is admirable with cream and light blue and yellow and lavender irises, since the rose is solidly spangled with three-inch, five-petaled flowers like butterflies of buff touched with orange, muted carmine and deep rose madder. They are not fragrant, by the way, and this is the only defect.
It is a variety of Rosa chinensis -- obviously a garden form, not a true species -- and like them has good foliage, never suffers from mildew and rarely from blackspot, and blooms steadily from May to Thanksgiving.