PAPER WHITE narcissi have forever been favorite winter house plants because any imbecile can grow them, and I always have.
But lately the markets have offered Israeli-grown bulbs that perform vastly better for me than the bulbs I used to buy.
I got mine at a Washington garden center, for about 50 cents each, and set them in a bowl of pebbles on the floor of an upstairs closet. After three or four weeks (three, as I remember, though you never know, since one Monday is much like another and it's easy to lose count) I brought them to a bright window, where the bowls were set right against the glass.
In another week or two the bulbs bloomed. Four flower stalks come from the average bulb, and the leaves stand up straight, rarely flopping about.
The flowers are borne in larger clusters, and the individual blooms have a new well-fed look. The six segments (petals, as the vulgar call them) are proportinately wider than in the old paper-whites, so that they overlap and you do not have that starry look, with space between adjoining petals.
On the whole, a tremendous improvement. And it certainly is not that the Israelis grow better bulbs, simply that they are using a better variety or strain.
So often I have been struck by a general failure to notice the obvious: The gardener does not get the gorgeous effect of an old white oak by cultivating a swamp oak extremely well. Skill almost has nothing to do with it. If you want the effect of a white oak, you have to start with a white oak. No amount of pampering a swamp oak will give you that effect.
Once in France when I was a youth I noticed that the two chief reasons for the general superiority of French food (I was a country boy and never ate anything but cornbread, rice, beef and artichokes -- my late mother discovered a place where artichokes were always on sale and I swear we ate them eight times a week, and this may be the place to say I never heard of a kid who could abide artichokes) was simply (1) the French insist, or insisted in those days, on top-quality ingredients, and (2) they got them.
Melon balls are no better than the melons they are carved from. Remember that. Well, the practical and realistic French (in those days) understood you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and they started off with the best stuff they could find at the grocer's, which (in those days) was terribly good.
It is the same way with gardens. People admire gardens here and there and then come home and imagine they will duplicate the effects they have admired by using totally different plants.
No other rose will give the luxuriant soft-pink effect of "Mme. Gregoire Staechelin," whom I reckon we are all sick of hearing about.
People were forever admiring the white rose on Vita Sackville-West's cottage at Sissinghurst in Kent. But if you suggest to them they grow "Mme. Alfred Carriere" they say they never heard of it and surely (they go on) they can get the same effect with "White Dawn."
Well, please yourself. If you want a white rose to look like the one at Sissinghurst, you had better get "Mme. Alfred Carriere" as Vita did.
Things are not all that interchangeable. If a cake recipe calls for six ounces of bitter chocolate, you need not expect the same result with eight ounces of rum extract.
One of the most admired effects in some of the world's great gardens comes from a big clump of Macleya cordata, or Bocconia cordata as we used to know it till the botanists switched names on us. A great eight-foot perennial with mitten leaves eight inches across, blue-green on top and khaki beneath.
And yet when it comes to the nitty gritty, nine gardeners in 10 will succumb (when turned loose in a market of perennial plants) to one more Oriental poppy, one more peony, one more iris. Then they will wonder why the effect of the garden is not quite what they admired somewhere. The Lord knows it can be grim to sit there and wait for new plants to reach a certain stature, and in the first years there is understandable temptation to acquire plants that grow very rapidly so they will soon make a show.
But once more I remind you (and needless to say I am worse about this than most gardeners, having extremely little patience myself) to think of those plants that set the tone of the garden, the relatively slow-growing shrubs and other plants: the yews and box and holly; the broadleaf evergreens and deciduous magnolias; the plants that look like nothing much when in bloom, but which give that effect of richness that gardeners desire even if they are not sure what to call it, such as the macleyas, bergenias, hostas, rue, rosemary, yucca, and so forth.
I do not say a garden solid with zinnias cannot be delightful. Often in summer I have bad days and wish I had a solid field of zinnias and nothing else.
But the point is, if you are enchanted by the effect of some garden full of rue and yuccas and so forth, you are not going to get that effect any other way than by planting them. Which means, of course, that they will occupy space that otherwise could be given to another rose bush or iris.
But you get, not so much what you pay for, as what you choose. Though I do not really mean to throw us all into despair. What you plant is what you get.
Obvious, of course. And the most difficult lesson of all to learn in gardening.