Generally, I prefer the unpretentious ground-level flowering of a patch of woods in May to the big showcase blooming of a formal summer garden. Those bright little clumps of Dutchman's breeches and harbinger of spring (also know as pepper and salt) that I come across in my rambles through our farm's forest after winter's last gasp speak right to my heart. They are so natural and welcome a presence that I can't help stopping to admire them.
I have nothing against cultivated gardens - they just don't speak to me in the same way those perky woodland wildflowers do. And what formal garden is lovelier than the scattering of daffodils and tangled mass of pink and white sweet peas edging the hayfield? Or as cheering as the chicory, purple ironweed, and Queen Anne's lace growing untended to lend color and grace to the summer pasture?
Having said all that, I shall now sing the praises of the gladiolus. I have a soft spot for the showy sword flower as much as for any of its wild, uncultivated cousins. After a morning milking in 1990, Charlie took off his boots and walked barefoot into his garden to pick me a bouquet of glads. It was one of my first visits to the farm, and one of the reasons I came back.
Though we struggled to keep that garden productive during our busy years running a dairy operation, letting it lapse into weedy neglect some seasons, Charlie always managed to keep a row or two of glads going. They reappeared each July and August even after he stopped digging up the bulbs for overwintering inside. Some were so resplendent they captured ribbons at the county fair.
The front garden gradually grassed over as we began instead to cultivate a garden patch back near the farm's log cabin. After our Belgians plowed the ground, we planted cabbage, broccoli, kale, and tomatoes - and gladiolus bulbs. We never dug those bulbs up in fall, either, or applied the pesticides recommended by many serious gardeners. Somehow, a half-dozen glads have always reappeared. They seem to have reached a comfortable self-sufficiency with us - as befits the farm's wilder décor.
This year we devoted the garden space to pine seedlings, which we'll raise to a decent size and transplant as a screen against encroaching development. Today, I walked back to the cabin, relishing the cool, rain-scented air after several weeks of stifling heat - and there among the little white pines was the brilliant red flash of newly blooming gladioli. The previous night's storm had bent one of the stalks over, but the vertical tier of flowers lying along the ground was undamaged. The big stem broke at my touch and the glad now graces a stoneware vase on the cabin's mantle.
That splash of scarlet against the old log wall has me captivated this week. Looking at it, I can still picture its likeness among the quickly gathered bouquet Charlie offered to me years ago - the only introduction to gladioli I needed.