The first snowdrop appeared beneath one of my azaleas the last day of January. I need not tell you it presented no more than an inch of white. It could hardly be called showy, and would not register with those who forever jabber about landscape effects.
The most faithful early-blooming crocus with me has always been Crocus seiberi, a lovely soft blue-violet with orange-red stigma -- many times I have seen it in Washington as a soft colorful glow beneath snow that has crystallized almost into ice. This year, however, it has not appeared, probably because I rescued it from a spot near the top of the steps and gave it (I thought) more favorable pasturage. So it's probably around somewhere.
The only other flower for me in January this year was a witch hazel of the variety 'Jelena.' I spent some time on my sidewalk admiring it. Several people looked at me rather sidewise, as I peered at the leafless branches. Witch hazels are among those flowers that some people do not see, even when the shrub is in full bloom. Anyway, this witch hazel usually does not flower with me until February.
The point here is that gardening is not necessarily painting pictures with plants, and is not necessarily fiddling about with color combinations, and need not have anything to do with globs of flowers.
In its greatest or most embracing form, it has to do with the ever-changing forms of plant life, more or less controlled or affected (and observed) by a human called a gardener. I knew a gardening couple whose entire space was planted with dahlias. They did not miss roses, daffodils, irises, fish pools, bosky arbors or anything else. You walked out the back door and there (in winter) was a fine great honest square of mud, naked as a jay. The dahlias were grown in rows, the varieties probably in alphabetical order. In September and October they went mad with joy. The rest of the year they fiddled about with labels and stakes or else sat quietly together musing silently on the glory of the dahlia.
They were gardeners, all right, and found exquisite pleasure in the cycle of growth and death of dahlias. They reminded me of that bygone system of education in which you weren't supposed to know all about a lot of subjects, but knew three or four in great depth.
I knew another gardener who had maybe 150 clumps of daffodils and worried much of the year about their disposal. Should 'Glacier' be within eyeshot of 'Empress of Ireland'? And with so few daffodils, that gardener was forever having to discard some variety in order to replace it with a new and better kind. The clump that was to be sent into utter darkness would be decided on in the winter, to be dug up and given away the following July. Sometimes the discard would bloom that spring in unaccustomed glory. Then of course it was impossible to get rid of it, after all. I saw this with my own eyes on several occasions. Once the variety was safe, it reverted to its customary mediocrity the next year.
Another gardener had the idea that the main point of a garden was box bushes, and not just any box bushes. They had to be precisely spaced and absolutely uniform. As you know, box grows this way and that way in time, and it is almost impossible to have 30 in a row that remain absolutely identical over the years. That gardener, however, forever tried. The worst sin in gardening was to have box bushes that you could tell apart.
I have known iris growers who could not be happy without buying new introductions every year. Sometimes people of modest means would spend $1,000 a year on new irises, a thing they justified since they didn't take vacations, buy whiskey, etc.
I knew another iris gardener who was relatively rich, who went quite the other way and could never give up any of his old irises. In no time his garden had filled up and he had no room for any new varieties at all. Since he had started his irises in the 1920s and had been too cramped for space for any new kinds, his irises looked rather shabby compared with gardens where the new varieties had been planted over the years. He never noticed this.
Other gardeners judge a garden exclusively by the number of uncommon things in it. They see chicory or elderberries or a plain oak and drop their jaws, because (they figure) of course you should have planted a Serbian spruce or a Himalayan pine of a certain select clone. But they have their opposites, too, in the gardening community -- people who will not have any plant that Henry VIII did not know, and preferably nothing that came into gardens after Marcus Aurelius.
There are gardeners who think a spiderwort (Tradescantia) is loathsome in a garden, and others who wonder if it would be nice to have a solid border of it. People who care only for drabas and other wee rocky things, and those who veer unerringly to sunflowers, angel trumpets and the biggest hogweeds known to man.
I myself am much like all of them. But when the chips are down, I guess I'm a snowdrop guy.