This section is from the book "Flower Gardening", by H. S. Adams. Also available from Amazon: Flower gardening.
To grow flowers successfully one thing, perhaps above all others, is needed. This is plain, ordinary . gumption.
It is all very well to say that flowers will grow for those who love them; that so and so has only to put a stick in the ground and it will blossom, and that sort of chatter. One might as well assert that good bread, cake and preserves are products of affection rather than of skill. As in everything else, there is a certain knack in growing flowers.
This knack comes unconsciously to some, being bred in the bone. Others, who are the great majority, have to acquire it. Usually the process of learning is a slow one, not because it need be but because of the wrong notion that the heart is the guide of guides.
Far from it; the head it is that leads to success in the garden. The hands are the chief aids, and once in a while the feet are called upon to do more than walking. Heart, in the sense of sentiment, has been known to be absent altogether. But it ought to be there always, only properly dominated by the too rare quality of common sense.
Nature is the great fount of garden knowledge. Go to her for the elementáis. From her you will learn how plants grow, bloom and ripen their seed; how natural gardens are planted, how colors are arranged, how the annual has its place and the perennial its, how winter protection is given, how evergreens serve a purpose—in short, the all of the how.
The more you know nature the better gardener you will be. She teaches the why and wherefore of everything, if you will but open your eyes to see; and she makes learning a pleasant pastime.
The whole point is this: All gardens are nature humanized, to a greater or less degree. The humanization proceeds successfully only as you follow natural laws. You may bend those laws a bit* for the time being, but you cannot alter them.
Ignorance of first nature principles is shown on every side by the very bad habit of thinking that blossoms are the beginning and end of a plant. They are not; they are an episode in the life of a plant. In numerous instances they are not the most attractive episode; the foliage at one stage or another, or the seed, may be a great deal more beautiful. Let this sink firmly into the mind. A lily is more than blossoms; it is a plant, and one of a particular class in nature's wise ordering of things. With that class always associate it.
A person, whose family name happens to be Legion, once said when spring came around: "My Canterbury bells all died." Of course, they did; their time had arrived and they went the way of their kind. This, person" should have known that some plants are biennials, of which the Canterbury bell is one. Biennials, relatively few in garden cultivation, bloom normally in their second summer from seed; then they die. Occasionally, when the seed is sown later than spring, they survive two winters.
Annuals, as the name implies, are plants of a year. They are born in the spring and if their life has not spent itself by the end of autumn the winter's cold blots it out. In gardens, seedlings from sowings too late in the year to bring the plants to maturity will sometimes bravely endure a winter rather than perish in unfruitfulness. The name annual is necessarily elastic in the usage of cold climates, as freezing will kill some plants that naturally would go on flourishing. Thus the four-o'clock, unless the root is taken up and stored for the winter, is an annual in the North, though in its native tropics it is a perennial.
Strictly speaking, all trees and shrubs as well as those herbs that are neither annual nor biennial are perennials; the first two are differentiated as woody, the last as herbaceous. In garden usage perennial is hardy herbaceous perennial, for short. Herbaceous plant and hardy plant are occasional alternatives. Bulbs, although veritable herbaceous perennials, are usually classed by themselves; which is convenient if it is not botanical.
Herbaceous perennials are the largest class of garden plants and because of their durability they are the most valuable one. Their life runs on indefinitely; two or three generations may see a peony or fraxinella growing in the same spot It scarcely can be said that the individual lives years without number, as in the case of a tree. Often there is the appearance of this when old plants have not been disturbed; but the fact is that the root system expands from year to year, forming new crowns for blooming. With the development of the new comes a more or less gradual dissolution of the old, according to the nature of the plant. Bulbs create new units as the old ones die and shrink and wither away.
Whatever is herbaceous is supposed to die down to the ground in winter. This many herbaceous perennials fail to do. Not a few, such as the pinks and the creeping phloxes, have evergreen foliage —which is a very fortunate thing indeed. That beautiful St. John's wort, Hypericum Moserianum, is known as herbaceous, but is more like a dwarf shrub.
Annuals and biennials have a root system that generally permits of no division. They are therefore grown from seed; or, in certain cases, from cuttings. The more nearly the root is a long tap with very fine rootlets, the more difficult transplanting becomes; that is why it is advisable to sow the seed of annual poppies, sweet alyssum and mignonette where the plants can remain, the surplus being thinned out gradually as the plants become crowded Perennials, on the other hand, have spreading root systems that, after the second year or so, are more or less readily separated by either pulling or cutting them apart; bulbs separate automatically. The roots of perennials are sometimes a spreading network of fibre; again the system is largely concentrated in a fleshy stock, a tuber, a rhizome or a bulb.
"A narrow strip of turf between a border and a path always has a refreshing look".
It is essential to learn these things, for the reason that knowledge of plant life below ground, as well as above, is no inconsiderable factor in successful cultivation.
Associate a plant with its class and characteristics at the very outset. Do not be content with half knowledge; you get nowhere with that. If some one gives you a plant of purple German iris that you had admired when it was in bloom, do not begin by thinking of it as a lovely purple flower with three petals curved upward and three in falls.
Think of it as a perennial—ask if you are ignorant—with, as you can see for yourself, roots of a rhizomatous character. If you have not learned that in nature such roots grow horizontally and near the surface of the ground, sometimes showing a little above it, find that out, too, by inquiry.
Very soon the observation of these details and their merger into a comprehensive whole becomes second nature; you know a plant as an individual without any more process of reasoning than when you mentally distinguish the pine as an evergreen tree or the grape as a deciduous vine.
A frequent cause of failure with flowers is what may as well be called footlessness as anything else. That is about what it is; an aimless plunging into the task with good intentions but an appalling lack of common sense. Footlessness cuts a strip fifteen inches wide out of the lawn on the west side of the house, and quite near it, and plants in what it is pleased to call a border some roses or some peonies, without any enrichment of the poor soil. Common sense would have ascertained before a spade was put in the ground that roses and peonies must have a sunnier position, that they are gross feeders and that without a wider border the grass would encroach on their territory in no time.
Footlessness plants sweet peas in dry, poor soil, three weeks late at that, and then wonders why the woman next door "always has such good luck", it undertakes to establish a rose garden in an obviously unsuitable location; it piles manure on top of foxgloves, which become rotten pulp before spring, and then cannot see why they should "winter kill"; it takes home plants that friends have given and sticks them in the ground with so little care and thought that the wail that they "didn't live" goes up; it transplants hollyhocks six inches apart and pansies fifteen—it does a thousand things wrong. And all for the want of taking pains to find out the right road to travel.
Taking pains looms large in the garden gospel.
If your cousin's wife has famous larkspurs every summer—larkspurs more than six feet tall and with enormous spikes of bloom—that is not "Serena's luck"; she took pains. Serena took pains to secure the very best seed, or plants, obtainable; you may be sure of that. She took pains to prepare a bed of deep and well-drained soil for them and to enrich the same without letting manure come next to the roots. Every May she takes pains to work a little bone meal into the soil around the plants. And she stakes the plants in time; early and late she is mindful of her larkspurs— which she knows will respond quickly enough if she gives them what they want. Serena is "on to her job," or everybody would not be talking about her larkspurs.
It is not luck that counts; it is Qrdinarily intelligent labor. If only everyone would realize that this uses up no more time than pottering, not infrequently a great deal less! The labor that makes for success is marked by the timeliness that finds it materially easier to get ahead of work than to lag behind it. Things are done when they ought to be done. Labor is thus so distributed through the season that at no time does it become wearisome enough to cease to be a pleasurable recreation. And by system every step possible is saved.
All this is helped along by a good memory. Every successful grower of flowers has a good, or, at any rate, a serviceable, one. The memory may be bad indeed as to Latin names, but it seizes upon essentials and holds them ever ready for use. The mind in time develops into what is virtually a perpetual garden calendar; you feel instinctively that such and such things are to be done at certain times of the year.
An element of success always is the careful avoidance of attempting to do too much. Your neighbor around the corner has the banner sweet peas in town; but if he tried to beat every one in roses and chrysanthemums also he would fall down in all, for it happens that he has only a comparatively little time to give to flowers. Being especially fond of sweet peas, he devotes himself to them and lets who will excel in other directions. That is the right spirit.
Not the least of requirements is eternal vigilance—a watchfulness that becomes a habit, but never a burden. It has a keen sense that sights the bugs from afar, that detects any invasion of weak plants by the strong before it is too late, that feels Jack Frost in the air—that ever is at one with the life of the garden.