Earthman was last seen in his mud shoes trudging toward his garden, muttering about weeds, dogs and goldfish and defying the skies to open up while he was out. Until he returns, here is an earlier column worthy of perennial interest. "I" IF THEY get dug up," a brilliant gardener once observed of small spring-flowering blubs, "plant them back.""I
How wise of him to think of it. Strangely, many gardeners worry that the crocuses, chionodoxas, brodiaeas and so forth will accidentally get dug up over the course of years piddling about in the garden, and so they will. Sooner or later every gardener will have the hallucinogenic shock of digging a hole for a hosta and -- Horrors, hail -- up pop two or three handfuls of dormant fritillaries. Or something.
I say nothing of the waxy squeak made by lily bulbs when they are inadvertently dug up. I am not yet so strong, not yet so stable, that I can get through that experience without disintegrating. Especially since it is known to every gardener that lily bulbs have a peculiar magnetism that draws the spade right through the center of them. Other bulbs you may sometimes damage by digging through the bulb itself, but lilies always and inevitably. They are possibly magical in that respect.
Let us forget them for the moment, and turn to the happier situation of the small bulbs that are rarely injured by being dug up, and which can easily be stuck back if they come untimely wrenched out of the ground.
Those fond of logic or philosophy long ago learned that small bulbs do not get accidentally dug up if they are never planted in the first place. And some gardeners, learning somewhere of the traumas of digging up, compliment themselves wrongly: "Thank God," they say. "I never have to go through the frights of digging up the chionodoxas, since I have no chionodoxas."
This I know is obvious. But also it seems clear that most of this world's joys are missed, not by lack of merit or general unworthiness, but by failing to make such an obvious intellectual progression as this:
Small bulbs bloom in late winter when their color is priceless.
The sight of these small creatures done up in all their gauds, will make even February and March and early April endurable.
Therefore, desiring ecstacy, I shall plant a number of these bulbs resting in the certainty of a general orgy while others (who have not thought right) are still creeping about the snow -- looking at maple buds.
Today we consider crocuses, irises, and the like: Irises
Iris danfordiae is piercing yellow, shaped like the Dutch irises of florists. It blooms here in early February, rising on a tube that you may call a stem, and the distance from the earth to the top of its bloom is only four inches. The flower is the size of a golf ball or a bit larger.
Its color is canary -- that is there is much green in it, but it is so brilliant and pure it can be seen maybe 200 feet away; and dandelions (which are not out yet) seem dull in comparison. The little arms that hold up the flower's lower petals are delicately marked in the purest and softest lime green, not that you see this unless you peer down into the flower. I commonly find the first aphid of the year, a delicate green one, on this iris in early February, where it sits pretending to be one of those lime-green markings I mentioned. It would be wrong, for some reason I am not sure of, to kill such aphids and I never do. That may not sound like a great recommendation for the iris, but if the gardener will for once just trust a writer and plant even half a dozen in September or October, in full sun or half shade, I think he will bless the day he did so and will say, "For once I read something useful."
One trouble with these small bulbs (it is the only one) is that usually we read of I. danfordiae, for example, that it is "yellow, 3-5 in." and that does not seem sufficiently promising to make us act.
Well, I know what throws people into fits, and I know entirely well that all these small bulbs do, so I say act, act, and plant. Even if you have to do it on faith. Even if you only have space or money for 6 or 10 or 20.
But let us be calm (difficult indeed when even thinking of these flowers) and get on, as Dante says.
Iris reticulata is reddish purple or blue purple marked with deep yellow-orange that you will call gold, since it is very rich against the deep purple. This iris is similar to I. danfordiae except a trifle taller, 6 or even (in lush leaf mould) 8 inches, blooming perhaps five days later, yet the two kinds overlap in their flowering season.
I. reticulata is variable, and I have yet to see an ugly one. There are also various hybrids between it and other small bulbous irises of its same botantical section, chiefly:
I. histrioides. Now this iris is named for its resemblance to I. histrio -- an uncommonly stupid choice of name, for a botanist. Histrio means clown. Iris histrio is colored up like a clown. It is difficult and rarely grown. But I. histriodies, which is merely clown-like (as distinct from full clown), grows reasonably well, though nowadays it is not generally offered for sale.
It (histrioides) is near sky blue with gold marks. It is one of those flowers (and the genus Iris is preeminent, to my mind, in this) that is gorgeous and showy without the least hint of false flashiness. It will save you time in thinking if you accept the fact that irises resemble the high-octane crescendos of Bach -- as loud and flamboyant as noise can get -- rather than the otherwise equally loud and exciting roar of fire engines.
These irises (and perhaps all irises) have a precise structure, an ingenious physical purpose accomplished by means of unparalled beauty, that keeps them from triteness.
The hybrids of I. reticulata and I. histrioides have the best points of both parents. The gardener may with utter safety acquire any small bulbous iris of this reticulata-histrioides group (such as 'Joyce,' 'Harmony,' etc.) knowing in advance that the flowers will be more beautiful than any pictures of them. Please let me insist on the point that 100 of these irises at a cost of between $6 and $9, something like that for the entire 100 bulbs, is worth exactly 14 nights on the town.
The blue star flower, Brodiaea uniflora (often sold as Tritelia, Milla or Ipheion uniflora), is the perfect bulb for planting where there is a bit of light or sun, but where grass does not grow. Up against walls of houses, at the base of gutter downspouts (where water is led off, through, for the bulb will not grow in a bog) or under trees where the grass struggles and gasps -- these are good places for the star flower.
Of course, in a border with roses, chrysanthemums and so on, it goes mad and flourishes beyond belief (it is never a weed, never invasive) but its chief value is that it grows where few things will. It blooms before the midseason daffodils and raises its scented nickel-size blue stars on individual stems six inches high for a period of perhaps three or four weeks. Crocuses
Crocuses are well known, especially the large ones that bloom in early April here, but even more wonderful are the wild species, and the hybrids among them, that bloom even earlier, from January on. One often offered now is 'Ruby Giant,' an extremely good wine-colored sort.
Others with such exciting names as "E. August Bowles," and "Violet Queen" make up in beauty for any short shrift they may have received at their christening.
"Lady Killer," "Advance," "Snow Bunting," "Goldilocks," "E.P. Bowles" (not to be confused with "E. August") and "Zwanenburg" are among the many others -- whenever you see these named forms or hybrids involving Crocus chrysanthus, Crocus sieberii, Crocus tomasinianus, or whenever you see those wild species themselves offered for sale, you should acquire a handful.
These early crocuses range from white through cream, canary, primrose, orange (often with purplish brown tiny stripes) into violet, deep red purple, milky blue and violet blue that may, on good days, be called sky blue.
Here we have not even got to the chionodoxas or muscari. Suffice it to say that over the years I have grown a number of these to see which were "best" and am at a loss to decide. C. gigantaea, sardensis, luciliae, and Muscari armeniacum, botryoides album (which country people still call by its old name of 'Pearls of Spain') and numerous others are all desirable. Do not panic if they put up leaves in the fall, that is natural and no harm ensues.
On occasion someone says to me, "You yammered so that I planted a few of those crocus or some other small bulb and I want to really thank you for insisting."
And then I know that the disappointments of my own miserable garden -- there are days like today I could plow it all up -- are worthwhile, because it has had its small excitements here and there, communicated to others who have found the same excitement. That is, I guess, something.