Gladioli scream summer. They show up in the garden just as the heat begins to kick in, and when you cut them and bring them inside, they last for a week or more. You just remove the spent blossoms at the bottom of the stock and let the buds closer to the top open up.
So if glads scream summer, why am I writing about them in the absolute depth of winter, with snow finally on the ground and temperatures dipping to the single digits? Simple: It is time to order bulbs.
One morning as I was reading through the online newsletter of Old House Gardens, an heirloom bulb catalog based in Michigan, I read what Scott Kunst, the company’s head gardener, had written: “Every January, our 90-something glad grower in Maine calls with good news. He’s been down in the basement cleaning and counting his corms, they look great, and he’s got enough of something special to share with us.”
Maine glad grower sounds like a column to me.
When I tracked down Paul Cates at Cates Family Glads in East Vassalboro, he said he was a bit amused by the newsletter.
“He gave me a promotion,” Cates said. “I’m only 86. I’m just a kid compared to that.”
True to its name, Cates Family Glads is a family operation. Paul’s wife, Elisabeth, is fully involved in the business, as are some of their children and grandchildren — although all seven of Paul and Elisabeth’s children helped on the farm when growing up, said Margaret Cates, who handles the website and does some of the deliveries.
Paul Cates said he was fascinated by glads from the time he was a young boy, looking at fields of them in bloom near his house. As he was saving up a fund to finance his college education, he started growing glads in addition to working in the chicken and egg business.
“The glads were a pleasant addition to my income,” he said. “I would sell them to florists in the Augusta and Waterville area right up through high school.”
The sales continued when he came home summers while attending Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
Cates’ career as a grower of glads went on hiatus after World War II, when he was sent to Germany to work on the relief effort. In addition to his regular job, he began volunteering for the German Protestant Church as a courier taking messages and medicine into East Germany.
One of the people he delivered his packages to was Elisabeth, and they developed a relationship. They started working on getting married in 1964, with the West German government paying a ransom for East German women who wanted to marry someone on the other side of the wall. But it wasn’t until 1969 that she came over as a result of a swap for a Russian spy, Cates said.
“We finally got home, and not having a job here, I wanted to have an additional source of income, so I thought about the glads that helped me through college,” Cates said. “So I bought 1,000 gladiolus bulbs from a wholesaler, and after four or five years, I had a good part-time job growing the flowers and selling them.”
And Elisabeth brought an unexpected fund of knowledge to the project.
“Elisabeth’s grandfather had been royal gardener for the kaiser of Germany,” Cates said. “Elisabeth had been like a little puppy dog, following him while he was tending the royal gardens and riddling him with questions. She never forgot any of the answers, and this is as much her business as anyone’s.”
In addition to growing glads, Cates earned a living as a circuit-riding preacher for the Society of Friends (Quakers), and teaching German in Vassalboro and at Erskine Academy in South China, finally retiring at age 80.
But the glad business continued to grow.
Glads reproduce rapidly. On the plants that bloom, the main bulb usually dies off, but many smaller corms are produced. On plants that don’t bloom, the bulb stores energy so it can bloom the next year in addition to sometimes creating more corms, which can be planted to create future bulbs.
In other words, if you are growing glads for flowers, pretty soon you are going to have a lot of extra bulbs.
“After a while, people started saying to us, ‘Why don’t you share your stock and put out a catalog?’ So about the 10th year, we started a price list, and then that developed into a color catalog,” Cates said.
That is where the business is now. The family delivers flowers from glads as well as annuals, dahlias and some perennials to florists as far south as South Portland, and they sell gladiolus bulbs through their own catalog and wholesale to Old House Gardens.
Cates said he does not make a lot of money with the business, but it is enough to keep his children at home and on the land.
“We really get a pleasure out of spreading these heirloom type of varieties all over the country,” Cates said. “We really do it for the love of the flower.”
He said it’s a boon for his business to be able to sell a few thousand of a specific bulb at a time to Old House Gardens. He still has a lot of bulbs to sell in the Cates Family catalog, because Old House Gardens does not sell any bulbs introduced after 1970.
“There are several glad varieties from 1971 and 1972 that are the best of the color classifications,” Cates said, “and he (Kunst) just rejects them, because they are a year or two younger than his deadline.”
The Cates family has no such rules. The catalog has old glads and new, varieties that they like and that do well. And Cates proudly says his bulbs are a lot less expensive than the ones in Old House Gardens.
The Portland Flower Show again this year will be running an essay contest for ages 6 to 18.
Categories are ages 6 to 9, 10 to 13 and 14 to 18, and prizes of $50, $30 and $20 will be offered in each age group.
The essays this year will be detailing plans for a celebration to be held outdoors. The winners will be announced during the opening-night preview March 7.
Submission deadline is Feb. 16. For an application form and rules, contact the University of Maine Extension office in Cumberland County at (800) 287-1471 or go to the flower show website, portlandcompany/flower.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: