This section is from the book "The Florist And Garden Miscellany". Also see: All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!.
In undertaking to instruct in flower-craft, or rather to furnish some useful hints to the lady-readers of the Florist, I labour under considerable disadvantage in following a writer like Mr. Burgess, who so eminently possesses the art of conveying profitable instruction in graceful and pleasing language, and thus arresting the attention of his readers, when a less attractive writer, more conversant with the pruning-knife than with the pen, might fail in doing so. It will, however, be my aim to supply information of a more practical character; for which reason it will be requisite to enter rather minutely into the details of this department of gardening.
To ensure a brilliant flower-garden, it is necessary to begin at the ground; - a large outlay of money in the purchase of appropriate bedding-plants will give only an indifferent return, if the soil in which they are to grow is not properly prepared to receive them; and this, the resting-time of vegetation, is a fitting season for improving or renewing the worn-out soil of old beds or borders, and also for making any required alterations in their form, or in the general arrangement of the parterre. But no alterations of importance should be begun without a well-considered plan to be guided by, or the result is certain to be unsatisfactory; and ladies who take pleasure in designing their own patterns will do well to avoid pointed corners, unnecessary twists, and, above all, those narrow snake-like figures sometimes seen, which are as objectionable in point of taste, as they are difficult to keep well filled with flowers. Moderate-sized beds, with gracefully curved outlines, are the most proper for flowering-plants, being more easy to plant, and more effective when planted, than fanciful figures.
With regard to the quality of the soil, if too good, the plants will grow luxuriantly and bloom but sparingly in it; therefore very rich ground is not desirable. For new beds, what is called sandy loam is suitable, and this, if moderately good, will not need manure the first season; such soil may also be beneficially mixed with the earth of the old beds which require renovating, instead of more fertilising substances. For the annual manuring of such beds as require it, the refuse of the pleasure-ground, composed of grass, leaves, the rakings of the beds, parings of turf, etc, which have lain in some obscure corner till decomposed, might be used with advantage. But if it was observed last summer that any of the bedded plants grew strongly and did not bloom freely, such beds ought not to be manured. All these operations, howrever, must be suspended if the ground is very wet; for it is bad gardening to disturb soil when in that state, especially if it be of an adhesive nature.
The foregoing observations of course apply only to vacant beds, which are intended to be filled at a later period of spring; clumps of mixed herbaceous plants had better not be meddled with for two months longer, unless frosty weather affords a favourable opportunity for wheeling some well-rotted manure on to them.
The moist weather which generally concludes the year in our climate tests the condition of garden-walks; and as the enjoyment of garden-scenery depends very much on our means of convenient and comfortahle transit from one part to another, it will he advisable to take advantage of the present dormant season to alter the direction of objectionable, or to repair defective, walks. To ensure dryness, without which walks are comparatively useless, a substantial layer of stones or brickbats ought to be placed under the gravel; and if the ground slopes so much as to cause the surface-gravel to be washed into channels by heavy rains, there should be a drain made beneath one side of the walk, into which the surface-water can be admitted at intervals. Work of this kind can be carried on in bad weather without detriment to the ground.
Although autumn is unquestionably the best time of the year for planting successfully, yet, in a garden, it is not always possible to do things precisely when they ought to be done; therefore, if any contemplated work of this sort has been unavoidably deferred, it is better to do it in the present month, if the plants are large and the weather is open, than to wait till March or April, when numberless important matters will demand attention: besides, at that late season, when the power of the sun and the dryness of the air are daily increasing, transplanted trees are much more likely to die. The principal cause of death, however, is the loss of the fibrous roots by careless taking up. The science of vegetable physiology teaches, and practice amply confirms its truth in this instance, that the fine fibrous rootlets are the mouths by which the sap is sucked up from the earth; therefore it is important to retain as many of these as is practicable. It is also of consequence to prevent the roots from being much dried by exposure during removal; and when this unavoidably happens, or when the soil with which they are to be covered contains but little moisture, a liberal watering should be given before the hole is quite filled up with earth.
Attention to these few rules will save the life of many a valuable tree and shrub.
January is the month when, in this climate, the severest frosts generally occur; it therefore behoves those upon whom the management of greenhouses or plant-pits devolves to be upon the watch against the intrusion of that very unwelcome visitor, whose presence inside of those structures for only a short time might wholly destroy our pleasing anticipations of a gay greenhouse in spring, and of a showy flower-garden during summer. In frosty weather, then, give air very sparingly, and always as early in the morning as the temperature of the external atmosphere will permit. Open the upper lights only, by which a draught of cold air will be prevented, and close them again early in the afternoon, by way of economising heat; for it is bad gardening, as well as wasteful management, to keep a plant-house open till its temperature falls below the desired point, and then to set the heating apparatus at work to raise it again. Too much fire-heat is as injurious to plants as to their proprietor's pocket; therefore an unnecessary expenditure of it should be guarded against by timely attention. A considerable degree of cold can be excluded by covering the front and exposed ends of a greenhouse with mats, which can be taken down or put up in a few minutes, as occasion requires.
Pits for the wintering of bedding plants having frequently no heating apparatus, necessarily require a substantial covering in severe weather. Dry hay spread over the glass and covered by mats, or a layer of hay between two mats, will exclude a very sharp frost; and a rough frame-work of wood, made to cover one light, and thatched with straw, is a very efficient protector. A lining of tree-leaves round the outside of the pits is also of great assistance in keeping out cold.
But damp will be found as destructive as cold to such plants, unless they are freely aired at every favourable opportunity. On fine dry days take the lights quite off; and when mild but rainy weather occurs elevate the side of every light by setting one end of a tilt under the stile, and the other upon the rafter; this plan admits much more air than tilting the lights at the back in the usual way. Dead leaves favour the extension of damp or mouldiness in moist weather; so they should not be suffered to remain on the plants. Water, too, must be very sparingly given at this season, especially if no provision exists for drying the air by artificial means. When the soil in a pot is too dry, it is only the work of a few seconds to remedy the evil by giving it water; but if too wet, a considerable time must elapse before the excess of moisture is removed by evaporation, and in the interim the roots of the plant are liable to be perished by the chill. Plants with semi-succulent stems, such as scarlet Geraniums, will hardly require watering at all during the dead of winter.
Among greenhouse plants, Pelargoniums are exceedingly susceptible of injury from overwatering; so likewise is Mignonette; and indeed, as a general rule, it is better to under than over water at this time of the year.