Many men (and more especially many women), many minds, but however much tastes may differ I think that a list of thirty species of herbaceous perennials should be enough to satisfy the ambition of an amateur, at least in the climate of the middle and eastern United States. I have tried many more, and I could be satisfied with a few less. Of course by buying the seeds in separate colours, as in the single case of pansies, one may use the entire bed for a single species, but the calculation of size is based upon either a ten-foot row of a mixture of one species, or else that amount of ground subdivided among several colours.
Of the seeds for the hardy beds themselves, the enticing catalogues offer a bewildering array. The maker of the new garden would try them all, and thereby often brings on a bit of horticultural indigestion in which gardener and garden suffer equally, and the resulting plants frequently perish from pernicious anaemia. Of the number of plants needed, each gardener must be the judge; also, in spite of many warnings and directions, each one must finally work on the lines of personally won experience. What is acceptable to the soil and protected by certain shelter in my garden on one side of hill crest or road may not flourish in a different soil and exposure only a mile away. One thing is very certain, however, - it is time wasted to plant a hardy garden of herbaceous plants in shallow soil.
In starting the hardy seed bed it is always safe to plant columbines, Canterbury bells, coreopsis, larkspur, pinks in variety, foxgloves, hollyhocks, gaillardia, the cheerful evergreen candy-tuft, bee balm and its cousin wild bergamot, forget-me-nots, evening primroses, and the day-flowering sundrops, Iceland and Oriental poppies, hybrid phlox, the primrose and cowslips of both English fields and gardens, that are quite hardy here (at least in the coastwise New England and Middle states), double feverfew, lupins, honesty, with its profusion of lilac and white bloom and seed vessels that glisten like mother-of-pearl, the tall snapdragons, decorative alike in garden or house, fraxinella or gas plant, with its spikes of odd white flowers, and pansies, always pansies, for the open in spring and autumn, in rich, shady nooks all summer, and even at midwinter a few tufts left in a sunny spot, at the bottom of a wall by the snowdrops, will surprise you with round, cheerful faces with the snow coverlet tucked quite under their chins.
Fraxinella, - German Iris and Candy-tuft.
It is well to keep a tabulated list of these old-time perennials in the Garden Boke, so that in the feverish haste and excitement of the planting season a mere glance will be a reminder of height, colour, and time of bloom. I lend you mine, not as containing anything new or original, but simply as a suggestion, a hint of what one garden has found good and writ on its honour list. Newer things and hybrids are now endless, and may be tested and added, one by one, but it takes at least three seasons of this adorably unmonotonous climate of alternate drought, damp, open or cold winter, to prove a plant hardy and worthy a place on the honour roll. (See p. 376.)
Before you plant, sit down by yourself with the packages spread before you and examine the seeds at your leisure. This is the first uplifting of the veil that you may see into the real life of a garden, a personal knowledge of the seed that mothers the perfect plant.
It may seem a trivial matter, but it is not so; each seed, be it seemingly but a dust grain, bears its own type and identity. Also, from its shape, size, and the hardness or thinness of its covering, you may learn the necessities of its planting and development, for nowhere more than in the seed is shown the miraculous in nature and the forethought and economy of it all.
The smaller the seed, the greater the yield to a flower, as if to guard against chances of loss. The stately fox-glove springs from a dust grain, and fading holds aloft a seed spike of prolific invention; the lupin has stout, podded, countable seeds that must of necessity fall to the ground by force of weight. Also in fingering the seeds, you will know why some are slow in germinating: these are either hard and gritty, sandlike, like those of the English primrose, smooth as if coated with varnish, like the pansy, violet, columbine, and many others, or enclosed in a rigid shell like the iris-hued Japanese morning-glories and other ipomeas. Heart of Nature is never in a hurry, for Him time is not. What matters it if a seed lies one or two years in the ground?
With us of seed beds and gardens, it is different. We wish present visible growth, and so we must be willing to lend aid, and first aid to such seeds is to give them a whiff of moist heat to soften what has become more hard than desirable through man's intervention. For in wild nature the seed is sown as soon as it ripens, and falls to the care of the ground before the vitality of the parent plant has quite passed from it. That is why the seed of a hardy plant, self-sown at midsummer, grows with so much more vigour than kindred seed that has been lodged in a packet since the previous season.
My way of "first aiding" these seeds is to tie them loosely in a wisp of fine cheese-cloth or muslin, leaving a length of string for a handle (as tea is sometimes prepared for the pot by those who do not like mussy tea leaves). Dip the bag in hot (not boiling) water, and leave it there at least an hour, oftentimes all night. In this way the seed is softened and germination awakened. I have left pansy seeds in soak for twenty-four hours with good results. Of course the seed should be planted before it dries, and rubbing it in a little earth (after the manner of flouring currants for cake) will keep the seeds from sticking either to the fingers or to each other.
What a contrast it all is, our economy and nature's lavishness; our impatience, nature's calm assurance! In the garden the sower feels a responsibility, the sweat beads stand on the brow in the sowing. With nature undisturbed it may be the blind flower of the wild violet perfecting its moist seed under the soil, a nod of a stalk to the wind, a ball of fluff sailing by, or the hunger of a bird, and the sowing is done.