Many people with small gardens conclude they can have a beautiful garden -- the sort that looks fine in books -- only at the cost of giving up almost all the flowers they love, and this is perfectly true.
You may admire a long narrow city cat-run with clipped yews and golden box at intervals and a fine walk down the middle and a lot of herbs in between, and say it is utterly beautiful, and could easily be adapted to any small town garden.
But of course there are no peonies, irises, Oriental poppies, chrysanthemums, dahlias, drifts of daffodils, viburnums, dogwoods, lilies, etc., in it.
No, many gardeners conclude, let others have the beautiful gardens, while we concentrate on everything we can think of that blooms between the snowdrops and the onset of hard frosts. Such gardens, where an attempt is made to grow everything under the sun, are usually a hodgepodge -- I think the designer Russell Page called such gardens a collection of floral hay -- without focus, discipline or art. And often, to say the truth, they do not even have a place to sit and admire the whole.
I think such gardens could remain the agreeable mess desired by the gardener and still have a place to sit, a fish pool with a waterlily, a trellis or two, an arbor and maybe a couple of arches over the walk, on which to grow roses, clematis, honeysuckles or other vines.
But let us accede to the gardener's wish to grow a lot of bright flowers. They do not have to be the same blazing marigolds every year, the same scarlet zinnias, or the same anything. One year can be different from another.
I admit that nothing in the floral kingdom surpasses nasturtiums, sweet peas (which I fail with half the time), verbenas or heliotrope in general charm in the summer garden, but many of us fall into ruts and grow the same thing year after year, needlessly limiting our horizons.
Seeds of annuals should be ordered now from the great seed houses, as it may well take them six weeks to be delivered. Nothing is more annoying than ordering seed the end of March and finding it is sold out, or else arrives in May.
Many seed catalogues have pictures of endless numbers of flowers that we peer at every year but it rarely occurs to us we might actually grow them. Of course, many things will not flourish in our superb summers so highly blessed with the sun (hot as hell, in other words) and many do not like heavy clay soils, even with sand and peat moss added. We never add enough to suit many flowers.
Indeed it is a revelation how many flowers like to grow in almost pure gravel. I never could grow the common ordinary rock cress, Arabis caucasica, or the common beautiful hair-leaved Artemisia schmidtiana nana, or not for more than one season, until I planted both of them in pure pea gravel with only a couple of handfuls of rotted leaf mold per bushel. Then they sat back and tried to take over the world. The lesson is that while we think we have provided a "light soil" the truth is that our humble efforts of dumping sand and humus into clay does not fool carnations, say.
For some unearthly reason I keep sowing Iceland poppies, though I have never had a flower from one. I know it can be done. Sometimes, I fear, one trouble is I am likely to forget them, once the seeds are sown.
It has always seemed to me that weeds of meadows (poppies, fireweeds, chicory, bachelor's buttons, valerian and so on) should be rather honored when I set out to grow them, and if they can make it in a meadow or at the side of a highway they ought to make it in my garden. And yet even the bachelor's buttons, which will seed themselves along alleys, will not endure having the leaves of daylilies flop over them in their youth, and even the toughest bearded iris will not endure the encroachment of bindweed or poke.
The riskiest kinds of flowers are those that disapprove of anything hotter than 65 degrees at noon, and those that like to be somewhat fogbound and damp in July and August. The Chatham Island forget-me-not, for example, would die if it saw that its mailing label said Washington.
On the other hand I am much tempted by South African annuals, things like arctotis, dimorphotheca, mesembryanthemum and gazania. These like to be somewhat dry in summer, and despite our whining every year we have a good bit of rain, but they can adapt to rain more easily than many other flowers can adapt to heat.
The dimorphothecas -- possibly the name is one reason nobody to speak of tries them, and this situation is not helped by the decision to change the name to osteospermum -- are at least as handsome, and I think handsomer, than the gerbera daisies from the same country. They are not such heavy daisies as gerberas, and like many daisies they close up in dim light, but they often have a dark boss in the center, and they have a look of great quality, as if they would be difficult to grow. They are not. Say I, who have not grown them.
I see my love-tangles (Cymbalaria muralis) has died out. It grows nicely in the middle of Mississippi so you can't say it won't stand the heat up here, but it would have been safer on or at the base of a north-facing wall than in a barrel in the full sun. It is the same as Kenilworth ivy, if you know it by that name.
One of the most beautiful weeds that does superbly here is the cleome, usually seen as a cloud of two-toned mauve. But it can also be had in a pure white variety, 'Helen Campbell,' which is both foolproof and quite glorious in the garden at night. This, and many other pleasant annuals, are likely to sell out -- I notice J.L. Hudson, seedsman, P.O. Box 1058, Redwood City, Calif. 94064 sells it. His catalogue, at a dollar, with a few black-and-white engravings but no photographs or color pictures, is one of the most remarkable in the world for the endless kinds of seed he offers.
He has a note that he has no business or personal telephone and cannot answer letters. I doubt it does him any good to say that. I also have mentioned more than once that while I try to answer letters, especially those asking where to obtain a certain plant, I cannot always do so. It helps, by the way, to write a return address and phone number on the letter paper itself, as envelopes are thrown away as opened. It is also extremely difficult to answer such typical letters as, "I have moved here from Butte and have two acres covered with honeysuckle, but would appreciate your telling me how to make a nice garden in this different climate." Another popular query concerns something that died. Well, plants do, and the cause can be almost anything. You will also forgive me, I hope, if I do not recommend assorted poisons and sprays. You're on your own, and I don't approve of any of them. I always return phone calls, but not after the third try. I love hearing from gardeners, and count on the mercy of people to imagine that sometimes things get quite ahead of me. None of which alters today's sermon, that you will get a kick from trying seeds of things new to you, even if not all of them succeed.