There is no chapter in this book that I have started into with such a relish as this one. It is a treat. It is better than falling off a log. It is an icecream soda and a 15-cent cigar. It is more than equal to seeing the Highland fling danced for the three thousand eight hundred and fifty-sixth time.
There is a good display of egotism in it, because the writer thinks he knows how to pot, and he has seen a great many who did not and never seem to learn. Some will say: "There is a man who thinks nobody can do a thing right but himself." I beg your pardon; that is not so, for I have seen many young men who began to pot and shift plants when they were fifteen years old and made experts at it, but when over twenty they seldom learn to perform this important operation properly, which must combine both speed and proficiency.
Our business is both mental and mechanical, and a good mingling of the two. It is the mental that sees at a glance that a plant needs shifting and the size shift or pot it wants. It is the mechanic that expertly shifts the plant from the 3-inch to the 4-inch, because he has learned it, and it is not the slightest effort of the brain to do it right. It would be an effort to do it any other way.
It must be admitted that potting and shifting is the most important mechanical operation in our commercial houses, and any young man who is really a quick and good hand at it can always get a job, but how few there are when you want them. A Jaggs or a Baggs or a Raggs, if known to be an expert at this operation, would often get a favorable answer to his question, "Have ye got a job, sir!" instead of an evasive answer, even if he were known to have laudable loving for exploring all horticultural centers. We must put up with a slow gait sometimes, but I have suffered more than once by right down bad and careless potting; carelessness is not the word, it is right-down stupidness, thick-headedness, with awkward-handed-ness.
It is no good telling you how not to do it, but still I can convey some points by describing what I have often seen in the shape of potting, which causes itching of the skin and the mastication of a large lump of profanity that has to be swallowed instead of coloring the atmosphere.
You will see a man take hold of a cutting between his finger ana thumb by the top of the shoot, and suspend it in the little pot, then fill up the pot heaping full and then begin to thumb all around on the surface. Then the same man or his class will take a plant that has come out of a 3-inch and after putting half an inch of soil in the bot-ton of a 4-inch, set the plant in with the old ball one inch down the new pot, then a big handful of soil is thrown on the top and the thumbing commences again with several revolutions of the pot and a few extra pressures of the thumb.
If you will knock out the 2-inch first described you will find that near the bottom, where the soil should be compact around the roots, it is loose, but firm on the surface, where you don't want it so. And if you will knock out the 4-inch you will find the first inch quite solid, but lower down where the roots are you will find spaces between the old ball and the pot, which I have learned to call, when exhibiting them to a workman, " mouse's nests," for I have found the cavities large enough to domicile the little rodent.
When potting see that your soil is in just the right consistency. It should never be too dry, and to be wet and sticky would be ruination. Some one, perhaps Mr. Henderson, described it admirably when he said it should be in such condition that you could squeeze up a handful and it would adhere in a lump, but when thrown on the bench it would crumble to pieces. That is just about the same condition so dear to the eye and heart of a farmer when plowing his clay loam in the spring, when it falls back from the plowshare in flaky particles.
In the old country, so-called (this is the oldest, geologically, by some odd billions of years) we were taught to sprinkle the new pots before using them, and although it is disregarded in our hurry, it is, I am sure, an excellent plan to dip all new pots a moment or two. We are also taught in Europe to wash all pots before being used again. This is a good thing to do when you have the time, but we never seem to have the time, so we put them out of doors in summer when out of use. If you have a field and can spread them out the rains will do much to wash the outsides, but if the cows walk over them or children play ball with them it is sometimes expensive. Piled up in neat rows with some boards for a foundation does us very well, for then they get thoroughly dry, and when wanted for use a coarse wad of cloth will give them what Nicholas Nickleby had to put up with the morning after his arrival at Dothe-boy 's Hall, " a dry rub." This dry rub will clean them inside near enough for most all of our common plants.
The very worst place for storing pots is under a wet bench, where they get so saturated that they must be in poor condition, for although the water we give our plants does not all go out through the porous pots, as somebody said it did, yet it is well to have as much of the porous quality as we can get. There is considerable humbug about porous pots, however, and we do not attach much importance to it because we see plants thriving in a green painted pine tub, which is no more porous than our neighbors' pie crust.
It is a great benefit to have our flower pots and pans all of one standard make, and, better still, to have one maker's make. The breakage of pots in the old days of hand-made pots was terrific, and we should squeal awfully had we the same amount to lay out for potting soil.
It is difficult to attempt to give any instructions on how to pot or shift a plant, but a few hints will suffice.
To begin with a rooted cutting. If the roots are small the pot can be filled to overflowing with soil and one dab of the forefinger makes a hole big enough to put in the plant; or if the roots are too long for that, hold the plant with the two first fingers and thumb and fill up with one handful of soil, then with the thumb and first finger of the left hand and first finger of the right hand run into the soil perpendicularly on three sides of the plant, you have well firmed the soil around the roots, where it ought to be firm, and as you pass the plant into a flat a rap will settle the soil and the first watering will do the rest.
You ought to learn to seize the plant with one hand and the pot with the other. A good hand at this light job with cuttings that are easy to handle, who has his pots and plants brought to him and carried away, ought to pot easily 500 an hour.
When it comes to shifting a 2-inch to a 3-inch, or a 3-inch to a 4-inch, you should hold the plant by the stem, letting your little finger rest a moment on the edge of the pot, fill the pot nearly a third full, and then lean the plant toward you and put in some soil, give the pot just one half turn and lean the plant again toward you and fill up the other side, and then squeeze the ball hard down; another rap, and the shift is done. Now, by this method you have put the soil solid all around the ball, firmer near the bottom, because you wedged the plant into the soil.
Up to 6-inch pots this method will do, with perhaps the addition of getting your fingers down the sides as a rammer. With all shifts of plants over (5-inch, especially with those that get a small shift, say 6-inch to 8-inch or 10-inch to 12-inch, you cannot get the soil, which in these sizes should never be sifted, down compact without the aid of a stick an inch or two wide and one-half or three-quarters of an inch thick. All hard-wooded plants, like azaleas, want to be firmly potted; and some of our soft-wooded plants, geraniums for instance, want hard potting. As a rule, plants are potted too loosely.
It would be a dirty job to be shifting plants within a few minutes of their being watered, but it would be far worse for the plant to shift it when it was quite dry, or in that condition that it needed watering, and the larger the plant the worse it would be because the water would largely pass down through the new soil and the old ball would remain dry till the plant was thoroughly soaked, which all plants won't stand.
We are able to shift a plant from a 4-inch to a 6-inch or 6-inch to 8-inch with absolute safety at any time, because when properly done the plant does not lose a fiber, but many of our soft-wooded plants soon recover from a little disturbance of the roots and with many of our common plants you can always rub off half an inch of the surface of the old ball, which enables you to give them more new soil.
Many of the soft-wooded plants that make a stem, such as geraniums, fuchsias, heliotrope, etc., do not hurt any if the old ball is down an inch under the new soil, but in hard-wooded plants it should be kept very near the same height. This is particular in palms; they should never be potted below the base of the stems. Many palms will raise themselves several inches above the ground by the roots. Lower them down when shifting, but not below the bottom of the stem.
The best work of potting I ever kept the watch on was done by an expert at any greenhouse work. It was very common stuff; Centaurea gymnocarpa from 2-inch to 3-inch. He did not have to knock out his plants, but merely shifted them and did it well, and in just twenty-five minutes he had rattled off 500. That was too fast to last all day, but it was not day, it was night, by lamplight. For the first week or two after Easter we frequently have to put in some " bees," and during several evenings last spring, two men in three hours, with plenty of help, shifted 2,500 geraniums from 3-inch to 4-inch.
I have spoken of rapid potting, which most of our bedding plants must get or it would not pay, but the man who can pot well and fast can also slacken down his speed and pot carefully when occasion requires, and where care is needed it pays. He could not handle cyclamen or cinerarias, or above all herbaceous calceolarias as he could a geranium or a canna, or you would break and smash the leaves, but expertness and smartness will apply to all of them.
I have seen some men take hold of a dormant cattleya and hold it up and look at it and twist it around as if it were a new and unknown reptilian fossil, and then fuss with moss and crocks as long as it would take to visit the dentist and have a tooth out, and then from want of knowledge the poor plant pined and died; while I know another who fixes them up as fast as I would shift a cytisus, and this man makes them grow.
Don't think for a minute, young man, that you are an expert potter of plants unless a superior expert told you so and watched you. I have noticed some young men in very large establishments who were poor hands at potting because perhaps they never had a good lesson, or perhaps they were of that conceited build that they would not learn. I noticed in one place where a rapid potter had been at work on a lot of rose cuttings that were calloused but had lost their leaves, and quite a number were upside down. Perhaps some will say that in our common plants in springtime anything will do. It may do, but in the aggregate the difference in the result between the right and the wrong way will be considerable.
Just a word about a potting bench. It should always be of 2-inch plank, resting on cross-pieces not over two feet apart, so that it is solid, with no spring to it. And it should be high enough so that a man can work his hands conveniently without bending his back. It is the bending over that tires. You can't raise a low bench up to suit a tall workman, but you can raise the short workman up to suit the bench.