This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V22", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
One time window gardening was universally popular. Then came heaters and illuminating gas, instead of open grates and candles, and the pretty room flowers were banished to the houses of the poor. In almost all our large cities we had to go to the poor quarters to see the window flowers, and even to this day in the large Paris hotels, it is chiefly in the fourth stories where the chamber-maids have their sleeping-places, that the floral adornments of streets are seen. But there has been a pleasant change of late years, especially in our own land. The wealthy and refined are taking to house gardening. By the judicious employment of screens and plant cabinets, the deleterious atmosphere of night rooms is excluded, and they can now have house plants as formerly. How much the love of window plant culture is spreading, we can judge from our correspondence, which is continually bringing before us the " want to know" of some friend about soil, or light, or water, to which we always take pleasure in replying.
The best kind of earth to use is the surface soil, containing the spongy mass of surface roots, from a wood; the first two inches of an old pasture field; the turfy spongy mass called peat, from sandy bogs or swamps; a little well decayed hot-bed manure: some sharp sand. These are now about the only " elements " that the most skillful gardener cares to have beside him: and many a good gardener has to find himself minus of some of these and be satisfied.
The soil for potting should be used rather dry; that is, it should be in such a condition that it will rather crumble when pressed, than adhere closer together. Large pots - those over four inches, should have a drainage. This is made by breaking up broken pots to the size of beans, putting them in the bottom a quarter or half an inch deep, and putting about an eighth of an inch of old moss or any similar rough material over the mass of " crocks" to keep out the earth from amongst it. Little benefit arises from draining pots below four inch, the moisture filtering through the porous pots quite fast enough; and the few pieces of " drainage" often thrown in with the soil placed right over, is of little or no use.
Ferneries are now so deservedly popular, that we must have a word to say for them at times, though their management is so simple there is little one can say. It is probably their ease of management, and the great results obtained for the little outlay of care that has rendered them so popular. It should not, however, be forgotten that the case in which they are enclosed is not to keep out the air, but to keep in the moisture, as ferns will not thrive in the dry atmosphere of heated rooms. A few minutes airing every day will, therefore, be of great benefit to them. Decayed wood, (not pine), mixed with about half its bulk of fibrous soil of any kind, and a very small proportion (say a tenth of the bulk) of well-rotted stable manure, makes a good compost. Most kinds particularly like well-drained pots. This is usually effected by filling a third of the pots in which the ferns are to grow with old pots broken in pieces of about half an inch square, on which a thin layer of moss is placed, before filling the pots, to keep out the soil from choking the drainage. "We would partiularly emphasize the remarks about draining, for one great enemy of the window-gardener is over-watering. There are far more plants injured in this way than by being allowed to become too dry.
The more freely a plant is growing, the more water will it require; and the more it grows, the more sun and light will it need. In all cases, those which seem to grow the fastest, should be placed nearest the light. The best aspect for room plants is the south-east. They seem like animals in their affection for the morning sun. The first morning ray is worth a dozen in the evening. Should any of our fair readers find her plants, by some unlucky calculation, frozen in the morning, do not remove them at once to a warm place, but dip them in cold water, and set them in a dark spot, where they will barely escape freezing. Sunlight will only help the frost's destructive powers.
Window plants suffer much at this season from the high and dry temperature at which it is necessary for human comfort to keep our dwellings. Air can seldom be admitted from the lowness of the external temperature. Saucers of water under the plants do much to remedy the aridity under which room plants suffer. In such cases, however, so much water must not be given to plants as to those without saucers. The water is drawn up into the soil by attraction: and though the surface will appear dry, they will be wet enough just beneath.
Where the air is dry, if in rooms or greenhouses, frequent syringings are of much benefit to plants. Besides, cleanliness keeps down insects and checks diseases in plants as in animals. Most old fashioned lady gardeners (and may we ever bless them for the many lessons they have taught us!) take every opportunity to set their window-plants out of doors whenever a warm shower happens to occur. In winter a rain at a temperature of 40° or 45°, which often occurs, might be called a "warm shower." Cold water does not have half the injurious effects on plants that cold air has. When plants get accidentally frozen, dip them at once in cold water and set them in the shade to thaw, as already stated.
It is better to keep in heat in cold weather by covering, where possible, than to allow it to escape, calculating to make it good by fire-heat, which is, at best, but a necessary evil. Where bloom is in demand, nothing less than 55° will accomplish the object; though much above that is not desirable, except for tropical hot-house plants. Where these plants are obliged to be wintered in a common greenhouse, they should be kept rather dry, and not be encouraged much to grow, or they may rot away.