A COMMON neurosis that afflicts many gareners involves a passion for graph paper, charts, numbers, topographical maps and lists.
It is among the least painful of my own neuroses, and I commend it to all who are thinking of gardening, as well as to all who are already bogged down.
Steel tapes or, for that matter, yardsticks can measure most city gardens well enough to give the gardener an excellent idea of the extent of his estate. Furthermore, it looks better, usually, on paper than it does out the window.
If the gardener merely thinks of his garden, he has a poor (and highly exaggerated) idea of it, especially of its size.
When a plant catalogue comes, the gardener (commonly in bed and comfy on a cold night) starts thinking he has a number of little spots here and there in the garden into which he could surely fit this and that plant that attracts him in the catalogue.
I have a friend who is forever ordering more clematis, because in her mind she can think how fine they would look. In due time the plants arrive and she commonly cries for help and advice where to plant them:
"Well, that row of viburnums should be able to absorb about 10," I begin.
"The viburnums already have 16," she says sadly. (She got 16 clematis without mentioning them, a year ago, and didn't cry for help, since she had places to stick them. I hear from her usually when there is not one inch anywhere for whatever plant it is that she has acquired.)
And my point is, of course, that if the garden is mapped, with everything indicated on it, then the gardener can see precisely whether or not there is space for a grove of redwoods, or whatever the latest enthusiasm happens to be.
There is one other point (since we are dealing with such high philosophical matters today) that I am bold to suggest, partly because it is obvious (and therefore universally ignored) and partly because it is something that new gardeners are often slow to comprehend:
No flower lasts forever, or even very long. And the flowers that last longest, that bloom on and on for months, are the very ones you get sick of long before their blooms have ceased; so that even if something goes on and on, like a marigold, it is not much of an advantage, since you are weary of it.
How often one thinks of those words in the Bible, that our years are threescore and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet are they burdensome, etc. Now among humans, you often find those extra years are wonderfully pleasant and desirable; but among flowers it is certainly true that endless blossoming is more desirable in the thought than in the reality.
And from this it follows that most of the world's wonderful plants bloom for a moderate time and then call it quits for the year. A star magnolia, for example, may be beautiful in flower for a week. In great years, it may be beautiful for two weeks. In bad seasons it may not be beautiful at all. A freeze may ruin the display before it even gets started properly.
In any case, the point is that for 50 weeks a year there are not going to be flowers on that magnolia, so it is just as well for the tree to be good-looking when it's not in bloom.
To carry it a slight step farther, a plant that looks great when it is not in flower may be sufficiently ornamental that the blooms (when they come) are of no particular consequence.
This is true, for example, of photinias, nandinas, box, yew, ivy, rhubarb and so forth.
And this leads us to an inescapable conclusion: if, for 50 weeks a year a crabapple is not as good looking as a yew, then maybe it is better to forget the crab's brief glory and have the yew instead.
In practice, there is no need to be so austere or so logical. Which is fortunate, since gardeners are sadly deficient in self-discipline, austerity and logic. Indeed, I can think of no other group, except possibly dancing girls in Cairo or somewhere, in which the taste for the voluptuous and the extravagant is so well developed as in gardeners.
Even in the smallest garden there is space for flowers. Life does not, after all, have to be all that practical, and neither do gardens. Not everything has to be all-wool and a yard wide, guaranteed to wear well.
There is space for giddiness, for flamboyance, for plants that are not always handsome but which, for a few days a year, make the world seem rather beautiful. Such as the cherries, crabs, peaches, primroses, daffodils, tulips, and all those other great things that look like nothing when out of flower, but look like Oriental treasures when they are.
But all I am trying, very gently and inoffensively, to say is that the garden gives less pleasure, as a rule, if too much of the space is given to transient beauties, and too little given to the sober, steady, quiet beauties that look fine all year, but which are hardly noticeable when a flowering peach bursts forth.