Last Saturday I finished planting the strip bordering our backyard (and fronting the athletic fields of our neighborhood middle and high schools) with daffodils and daylilies (100 each). The daffodils are "The Works" mixture, which "Amos" "Pettingill" (the creator of that pseudonym surely being some progenitor of a writer for The Simpsons) promises as comprising "top-size bulbs of no less than 30 varieties, never more than five of each, [...] blended to provide the widest possible range of color, form, and blooming time". We'll have to see next spring as to how truly varied these turn out to be, but I can attest to their size...these were plump, luscious bulbs, and the quantity packed included more than enough extra to cover the margin of error for the two or three that were found to be weightless and desiccated. I think I will always remember the pinch-me-please beautiful weather, and how the clay soil yielded without resistance to the spade and trowel, turning up more earthworms than grubs.
Funny thing about daffodils. A year ago this time I was making my first plans for spring bulb planting. I remember going from page to page of an oversized technicolor tulip catalog, nearly hyperventilating with the desire to possess everything pictured. Luckily, superego prevailed over id, and I whittled down my order by, say ninety-eight percent or so, and interplanted two dozen bulbs among the lavender (the better to deter rabbits with, my dear).
Some weeks later that year, I planted daffodils for what I can only look back and describe as utilitarian reasons: they were half-price (at that point in the season) at the garden center; rabbit resistant; likely to naturalize; and, as a flower, perfectly okay.
But when the bulbs bloomed next spring, it turned out that the tulips were the okay flower (although they were beautiful; and yes, the rabbits stayed away from them in the lavender border); the daffodils turned out to be the flowers I would come to love. I can't quite explain it, but it's something in the way that each daffodil flower draws one close to look upon and appreciate a quality of integrity in its beauty. (Evil self-editor: yes, you're right; you can't quite explain it.)
And so Henry Mitchell has been on my mind. He died ten years ago this coming November. It is reported in the introduction to The Essential Earthman, in the edition issued posthumously, that he died while helping a neighbor plant daffodils. The only picture I have seen of him is on the cover of my paperback edition of One Man's Garden. Earthman? All man. Shirtsleeves rolled up like he means business, with lit cigarette in hand. (And to think that it was just his prose that made me swoon.) Henry Mitchell wrote passionately and with encyclopedic knowledge about all sorts of plants, but especially daffodils. (An aptly titled chapter in The Essential Earthman is "Daffodil-irious".) The following excerpt, from a different chapter in the book, made me guffaw (not laugh) out loud the first time I read it:
Most of my daffodils have severe defects, by show standards, but then they make a brave show all the same. I have several that are to my eye distinctly ugly, but I like them too. One is a bicolor trumpet, white perianth with a really gross megaphone sticking out in intense neon-lemon, frilled to beat the band, like a whore on Easter. I never saw anything quite like it.
The last column Henry Mitchell wrote was titled "The Dawn Lies in Wait", which includes this gift:
The gardener must acquire plants, but amassing treasures is not the aim or the goal. The aim is to peer intensely at all of them, to enjoy the way in which they sprout up and in due season die down.
The Essential Earthman. Henry Mitchell. (First Mariner Books edition, paperback, 1999; originally published Indiana University Press, 1981.) ISBN 0-395-95768-0.
One Man's Garden. Henry Mitchell. (Houghton Mifflin, paperback, 1992.) ISBN 0-395-70937-7.