WHEN I was a boy an unmarried woman lived around the circle a ways and adults thought she was possibly odd, and children knew for a fact she was the devil incarnate.
She had 40 cats. Somebody went over and counted them. She did not have what you would call a real garden, but she had a great bed of roses, maybe 40 by 20 feet, right out in the sun and in full view of the sidewalk, for she had no fences or walls.
Her roses were mainly 'Radiance,' with a few 'President Herbert Hoover,' and 'Talisman' (which always was full of blackspot but never stopped blooming) and maybe 'White Maman Cochet.'
The bed was never very well weeded. And in the spring it was solid with blue larkspur and cornflowers in blue, rose, puce, dishwater -- many of them subtle colors, by no means brilliant. They bloomed together with the roses, and I find myself often thinking of it now, since now I see (as I did not then) it was flawless and beautiful.
The cornflowers (bachelor's buttons, we called them) soon got weedy and the larkspurs soon stopped blooming as they went to seed in the heat. When this happened, the woman simply either cut them down or else (depending on her enthusiasm in any particular summer) left them alone to look ratty.
The problem with both cornflowers and larkspurs is that they like to grow in cool or cold weather. When we think of them in April and May, it is already too late to plant them. But if they are planted in flats or pots the end of February, indoors, and kept growing along, hard, they may be set out in April and will be a substantial delight. They may then be allowed to go to seed naturally, and once this happens the garden will usually have them forever.
Another glorious annual flower (which sometimes behaves as a biennial) is the opium poppy. Once about 1910, a woman in my family, who made poppy-seed rolls, thought her poppy seeds for bread were possibly too old to use, and pitched them out the kitchen door. She was rewarded by exceptionally fine opium poppies.
In our church we sat beneath a window showing a rather languid angel holding his trumpet down towards the ground and peering somewhat upward. All around him was a border of quite splendid opium poppies, the size of teacups and packed with a couple of hundred petals. The flowers nodded in the window, as they do in the garden, having quite weak necks, and the color in the window (as in the garden) was a soft sort of murrey or muted rosy lilac.
Once these poppies get going in a garden from self-sown seed, they make big plants four feet high. They love to get out of the flower bed and spring up in the grass adjoining the bed. Wise gardeners leave a few of them alone, wherever they spring up. But these poppies, too, begin dying as soon as they set their marvelous seed pods. It is from the pod, by the way, that opium is made. The capsule is scored with a knife, and the gum that is exuded is collected.
At one point the national government was very upset about opium poppies. I believe this particular panic has passed. You will notice that government, which does rather a poor job preventing crime in general, is usually quite efficient at asinine measures such as seeing to it that gardeners do not plant opium poppies, probably on the theory that unless we are prevented we will all get high as kites on our opium and maybe join the Mafia.
Another delight of the spring is the California poppy, which like everything mentioned today needs a good early start to bloom in May. The common wild one, that is so glorious around Bakersfield, Calif., when the rains come and the desert starts blooming, is a rich neon orange-yellow. There are other colors now, and there are semi-double sorts. I have grown some, but think the best one is the wild one.
It is sometimes said that seeds of these early annuals may be sprinkled on the snow, and that as the snow melts they sink into the earth and come right along. This has not been my experience. Any seeds I have sprinkled on the snow have simply never been heard from. Also, I have noticed that the fall planting of seeds of these flowers (often recommended) commonly results in no result whatever. It is better, I think, to sow them outdoors, in place, as soon as the frost is out of the ground, or to start them indoors in late February.
Poppies of all sorts abhor being transplanted. Paper cups are said to be good little pots, the cups cut away when the seedlings are set outside.
One other thing: After some winters (and I think our present winter is going to be a classic example of this) it will be discovered that pansies, set out in October, have been quite frozen to death during the winter. If you see this is the case in your garden, the best solution is to go to a nursery or garden center early in April and get a few flats or trays or boxes of young pansy plants and set them out to fill in the gaps.
Pansies set out in October will bloom with the daffodils. Pansies set out in the spring will not bloom till the irises, as a general rule. But if the October pansies have been done in ("and desperately are dead," as the poet says) then it is better to plant out new ones in the spring than to not have any at all.