Before any of you were born, probably, I bought a dozen bulbs of gladious 'Picardy' for a dime and faithfully planted them though they were not much bigger than peas. They grew and bloomed admirably, and this ended my lust for gladious corns the size of pancakes.
Another year I grew some of the All-America gladiolus winners, planting the corms 18 inches apart and giving each one a six-foot stake, and these were a grand sight. One grew to seven feet high and had florets like teacups.
There is no reason a flower has to be useful, after all. It need not be any good for cutting and it need not be an ornament to the overall appearance of the garden. A flower may be remarkable in itself, grown just for itself.
An uncle once took me to New York to see Amorphophallus titanum in sensational bloom. The flower was something like seven feet in diameter and it was worth the trip to see, especially since I fear there has been no occasion since then to see such a specimen.
So I have no objection whatever to gladioluses taller than a gardener or to dahlias bigger than Herbert Hoover's impressive head.
The only trouble arises when the gardener does not think what he is about (a circumstance generally obtaining, I cannot help noticing) and plants an enormous dahlia or gladiolus when his real aim is a batch of flowers for cutting.
There is nothing more sensible, if you have plenty of space in a sunny garden, than growing dahlias in rows, the plants three feet apart, firmly staked and carefully disbudded, in order to produce from each plant two or three 11-inch-wide flowers the end of September.
In such a garden there will be plenty of other dahlia plants producing smaller flowers, sufficient to produce masses of color, with plenty for cutting. So it is not really extravagant to have a few of the whoppers.
In one garden I used to see, the garden was absolutely flat, absolutely rectangular, bounded by a useful and not very pretty fence, and was an uncluttered expanse of mud all winter. In spring it was even muddier, though ornamented with several clumps of daffodils. This was a dahlia fanatic's garden and it turned into a frenzy in April when dahlia tubers were planted out and staked. The stakes were huge, when necessary, and no effort was spared in tying, weeding, fertilizing and watering.
By July the mud flat was transformed into a jungle. All it needed was jaguars. No flowers, of course, since the aim was magnificent specimens from late August till frost. By mid-September the garden came into its glory. It was like walking among columns, bursting with color.
There you could see all kinds of dahlias, and there the seminormal (as distinct from fanatical) gardener could fall in love with the small cactus dahlias, the ones like small neon hedgehogs, a perfect size (four or five inches wide) for cutting for the house.
And surely everybody knows this, but dahlias come in flawless colors, pure and brilliant, soft pastel, blended, according to variety. I am not sure I have ever seen an ugly-colored dahlia.
There are dahlia specialists who sell named varieties, and there are hardware stores and garden centers that sell dahlia tubers in prepackaged units by color alone.
If you insist, you can plant the tubers directly where you want them to bloom about the time the lilacs bloom, say April 15. We always have cold rains after that and I get so nervous the tubers will rot that I cannot enjoy this method, though when I have tried it I have had perfect success.
I prefer to set the tubers in a shallow box with the crown or old stem not covered by the barely damp peat moss which I stuff around the tubers. Set in a sunny window, they soon sprout. When they are two or three inches tall, I cut the sprouts off and root them in a mixture of peat and sand in three-inch pots. They go outside to their permanent stations about May 15.
You will get several nice plants from the old dry tuber if you propagate them this way. Any fool can do it. I did. And while you will not believe it till you try it, by late summer you will have a plant just as large, just as full of flowers, as a plant grown from a whole clump of tubers. The only trouble with this method is that you need good strong sun to keep the rooted cuttings from getting spindly, and of course you have to water them, and if you start them very early you will have to shift them to larger pots, which is a royal pain.
That is why now is soon enough. I should add that before planting them out in May, you will want to lug the pots outdoors for increasingly long spells of sun and air, starting with only half an hour. This is troublesome, but sometimes a wife can be persuaded to bring them in and out, a system that has the added merit of having somebody to blame in case you lose a few plants.
If you plant the tubers directly outdoors, you not only wait until mid-April, but you also wait until the ground is on the dry and diggable side. You do not want to plant them in sopping clay, but then you do not want to plant them in clay to begin with. Beyond doubt you heeded urgings last November to dig the earth 20 inches deep, leaving it rough and uneven for the winter to freeze and thaw it, and the heavy mulch of manure you gave then has now rotted admirably so it is now a pleasure to dig everything into a luscious friable state, ready for the reception of the tubers next month.
As things go, dahlias are as easy to grow as anything. Without full sun, however, forget them.
If you plant the tubers directly outdoors in April, do not let more than four shoots remain. Once you have planted them six inches deep and staked them at the same time, have patience. It may take them a month to emerge above ground. After two weeks of cold rain you will want to scratch down to see if "everything is all right down there" but try to resist doing this. I have more than once snapped off shoots under the ground while investigating. Sometimes a whole forest of shoots will emerge, and if you are by nature stingy or greedy you will have to be spoken to firmly to make you pinch out all those extra shoots. You can root them to produce more plants, of course, but usually the gardener who grows dahlias from tubers at all will have more than he can say grace over and the last thing he wants is more plants. If you leave a dozen shoots you will not get decent results at all, but if you retain only three or four you will compliment yourself next August.