This section is from the book "The Florist And Garden Miscellany". Also see: All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!.
The charge so often laid against this very useful class of flowers, that of being so ephemeral in their duration, requires some degree of qualification. That they frequently are so, cannot be denied; but it will be observed that such is oftener the result of mismanagement than attributable to the real deficiencies of the plants. They are so universally employed as a means of decoration, that a word or two in their favour will not, I hope, be out of place. From the aristocratic parterre to the oval flower-plot of the citizen amateur, they are found lending their richness of colour during the summer months. Nor can this be wondered at. In their ranks are placed some of our greatest favourites. In colour, in habit, in profusion of bloom, they have much to recommend. Look at the Zinnias, making the very eye quail when gazing on them beneath an August sun. Then the gorgeous Portulacas; the humble but never-to-be-described Messembryanthemum bicolor; the quaint Calandrinia splen-dens; and the beautifully veined Salpiglossus. Then, again, the rich blue of the Eutoca viscida; the no less beautiful but paler Nemo-phyllainsignis, and the lovely Platystemon californicum; Indian Pinks, Campanulas, Stocks, Asters, Lobelias, and hosts of others, rise up in the memory and demand a notice.
Nor must be forgotten one of the most gorgeous, superlatively handsome as it is in a mass, the Sphenogyne speciosa. When this plant is well managed, and a bed of each in full bloom, nothing can equal it for richness in its peculiar colour - orange-yellow with a dark eye, and each flower of the size of a crown-piece. I have seen a bed of this plant when the mass of flowers, expanding as they do above the foliage, looked in the sun literally a sheet of gold.
In pots too, for the decoration of the greenhouse and conservatory in summer, how admirably are they adapted ! The loveliest of all flowers, Rhodanthe Manglesii, stands foremost in this rank. Collinsia bicolor is beautiful, and of good habit for the purpose. Brachycome iberidifolia in its several varieties is excellent; as is also the Schizanthus pinnatus, and several others.
In climbers, too, there is ample to select from; and a garden can present nothing in the way of flowers more chastely beautiful, more indescribably delicate - such as no pen can describe, or pencil imitate - than a mass of the annual Ipomoeas at sunrise. Soon after, the edges of the petals become crumpled, and then their beauty rapidly decays. Those ladies who have never gazed upon them when in their beauty, have a rich treat in store. The Ipomcea is in every way a favourite; and I never look upon their evanescent beauties without exclaiming, with Moore, " I never loved a tree or flower, But 'twas the first to fade away".
Annuals are for the most part sown so thickly in the open border, that the plants smother each other in their struggles for light and air; or in pots, and are starved into a premature maturity. In either case, the real resources of the plants are not developed, and premature decay is the natural consequence of precocity of maturity. The blossoms are no sooner produced, than, like a rocket, there is a dazzling blaze for a brief period, and all is over. Yet some of the annuals, it must be confessed, are of very brief duration; and to furnish anything like a summer's display, a constant forethought must be exercised to keep up a succession. But, on the whole, they are capable of a much greater degree of usefulness than they afford under the ordinary modes of treatment. Because they are of easy culture, and so rapidly decay, we forget, or care not, to recognise the fact, that they demand care and attention to induce them to a full development of their beauties; and there are few of them but well repay us for our attention.
Annuals that are sown early, under the protection of frames, are generally deteriorated in constitutional vigour by an undue excitement, or by a number of individuals being crowded together in a small pot. And those placed in the open borders are either sown in patches, and allowed to " take their chance," or are transplanted from the reserve-garden in tangled masses, with weakly stems, unable to combat successfully their change of circumstances, and their always brief duration is rendered still more brief.
The fact is, that annuals, as a general rule, should be treated as individual plants. At all events, in the earlier stages of their growth such a course should be adopted. The greater length of their duration, size of their flowers, and sturdiness of habit, will be the best recommendation for such an amount of care. For some of the later-sown annuals, a good system is to sow their seeds in some convenient situation, in a light shallow soil well incorporated with fine leaf-mould, to induce an abundance of fibres. It is well to render the natural surface perfectly solid, and to place artificially all the soil required. As soon as the plants are of sufficient size, they should be transplanted into a situation similarly prepared to that in which the seeds were sown, and at sufficient distances from each other to allow their removal with as little mutilation of root as possible. If a constant succession of plants is provided in this way, they can be moved at any time during the summer months, and often scarcely a leaf will droop. Of course, a cloudy day, in which to remove all plants of a like nature, is desirable; but if they are grown as I have suggested, a bright day need be no bar to their removal.
No soil is so well calculated for growing them in till their final removal as well-decaying leaf-mould. I have generally placed a stratum of ordinary soil on the surface, to prevent excessive evaporation. But the fibres ramify so thickly in the decaying leaves, that in the process of removal little damage is sustained by them; and whenever a whole bed has to be filled, or a vacancy re-occupied, a trowel and handbarrow or basket, expeditiously employed, will soon accomplishthe desired end.
It will be well to observe that all ordinary bedding-plants, when removed from their cutting-pots, are best treated in this way. It saves pots, is less trouble, and the plants are individually superior to others wholly grown in pots; as it often happens, that if from any cause plants intended for the flower-borders become pot-bound, the greater part of the summer is consumed before they begin to recover themselves.
Annuals that are required to remain as long a period in blossom as possible should never be allowed to perfect seeds. It should'be remembered, as a physiological fact closely bearing upon practical gardening, that the great end of all organic life is to perpetuate its kind; and that by taking advantage of this principle, and retarding such a consummation, a more protracted existence can be procured. By such practice plants naturally annuals are rendered of perennial duration - to wit, the Mignonette; and the full blooming season of many plants, as the Chinese Primrose amongst flowers, and the Strawberry in fruits, can be artificially protracted for our gratification. This fact is a strong supporter of the belief in the analogy of animal and vegetable life. If the eggs of any of the birds, as, for instance, pigeons - which, under ordinary circumstances, only lay two - are constantly removed, others are as constantly deposited; and in many of our common song-birds, as the thrush, double the usual quantity are sometimes produced by their being removed as soon as deposited in the nest, leaving one as a " decoy".
On the accumulation of vigour in annual plants, Mr. Knight says, "By appropriate management annual plants may be made to accumulate in one period of their lives the sap which they expend in another, with very great advantage to the cultivator." G. L.