No subject connected with horticulture is more difficult to handle than this. You cannot give any specific directions; you can only give general ideas. Watering occupies much of the labor of a florist and its proper execution is of the greatest importance. Plants in the ground are assisted occasionally by artificial watering, but with our entirely artificial way of growing them on benches and in pots and tubs they are entirely dependent on our attention for their most important element, water.
I remarked some years ago that good waterers, like poets, are born, not made. Here again is the most truly mental part of our business. The mechanical application is considerable, but not nearly so important as the knowledge and judgment required to know just when to water. A gentleman at the Canadian Horticultural convention, assembled some years ago at Ottawa, expressed his admiration for the exclusive use of the watering pot in the European gardens.
The writer has had a good deal of practice with the watering can, both here and in Great Britain, and has not the slightest veneration for the watering pot or its use. We don't believe that the production of fine plants has anything to do with the use of them, and believe the hose has many advantages and no disadvantages that we can see. It is simply a matter of who is handling it. The hose in the hands of a careless man may be dangerous to the plants from overwater-ing, while if the same man had to carry water in cans he would be probably too lazy and the plants would suffer for want of water. The watering can is laborious, slow, and expensive. The hose is one-tenth the labor; no excuse for scrimping the plants, the water can be applied at any degree of speed, and the hose can be used as a syringe to perfection.
You can soak a carnation bed in the month of May in one-twentieth of the time you could with a can. You can run a stream among violets in November without wetting their leaves far better than you can with a watering pot. You can water a bench of geraniums in the month of May with pleasure and do it thoroughly. You can with a very slow stream look over all your palms at any season. You can water a 7-foot bench of lilies perfectly when they are standing pretty close together, which you could hardly do at all with a watering pot. You can with a fine rose attached moisten the most particular orchid, or water a propagating bed, or even a flat of seeds if you know how to handle the hose. In fact, you can do anything and everything with a hose connected with watering or syringing plants, and to go back to the old watering pot would be as bad as a Manitoba wheat farmer discarding the gang plow and adopting the peculiar method described by Dean Swift's Gulliver, who dropped on a race of people who plowed their land by burying in their fields acorns and then drove the pigs in, which, hunting with their noses for the acorns, disturbed the soil. And the handling of 4-gallon watering cans at a tender age used to produce a corn on our palms.
It is merely the science of handling the hose. A man to be a first-class hand at watering in plant houses should have perfect sight. We had a man for several years who in other respects was a zealous worker, but would miss plants here and there and leave plants that were very dry without a drop of water. When he left us he donned spectacles. He was very shortsighted and had always been so, but did not want us to know it.
We have read in a very good little volume on floriculture that a man watered a house in a very few minutes by spraying the whole lot. We don't of course believe in any such work. Pouring a stream of water over a mixed lot of plants would be absurd. The houses that contain only one kind of plant are much more simple to water than a house or bench containing several, or perhaps twenty, but as we have all plants standing in blocks, each sort by itself, it is yet simple to distinguish whether this batch wants it or whether it would be better left till tomorrow.
We don't all have whole houses or benches of one plant. Just now, October, a very particular month for watering, you may have on a bench a few ericas, next azaleas, next some Harrisii lilies, next pot chrysanthemums, next acacias, next cyclamen, next some flowering geraniums. Some may want water and some are much better left till the following morning, and if your hose is running slowly it is easy to pass on to the next batch. Some men have to be told repeatedly that they do not get through watering any faster by letting such a strong stream run, and do not do the work so well. Whatever judgment is required about quantity for a bench, there is very little about watering plants in pots. If they want watering they want it, and that means that the space between the soil and rim of the pot is filled with water; that is a watering, and that is what we tell our customers when they ask the question, " How much water shall I give it?"
Now, if the stream is moderately slow the water you pour on will remain and fill up, but if a strong stream it will dash off onto the bench and leave the plant deficient of water. In April and May and the summer months a less experienced hand can water many things, for there is less danger of overwatering, and if the benches and paths receive a lot of overflow no harm is done, for you want to damp down as it is, when evaporation is great.
It is quite different in October and November, when there is little fire heat, and superfluous moisture would be injurious. As you pass along with the hose you water the flowering geranium without any syringing, and you come to 500 achyranthes that want not only watering but a good syringing, too. The cinerarias won't want syringing but the cytisus will. And there you have with your hose and your forefinger a watering can and syringe in one.
After the middle of May watering in plant houses can be done in the afternoon. In fall, winter and early spring it should be done in the morning. Perhaps it is the color of the soil, perhaps it is instinct or long practice that enables us to see at a glance when a plant or batch of plants needs water. A practiced hand will know that the plants along the back of the bench where the heat of the pipes may be coming up, or the front row where the sun and air get more play at them, may want water while the rest do not. So he will run his hose along those rows and say to himself if he is thinking of his business and not of his best girl, " Tomorrow the whole lot will take it."
The quantity of water that a plant in a pot needs, as was said before, is not a question; it wants water or it does not. It never wants a little. With a bench of carnations or roses it is different. I believe that except in hot weather in spring no more should be given a bench than will go thoroughly to the bottom, but be sure you give it enough to do that. This is not so easy to determine, but practice and observation with one or two waterings, will soon teach you about how much will be proper, and it should be applied softly, either with a rose attached to the hose, which is quickly unscrewed when you want to begin to syringe, or with a piece of flattened tin attached to the hose, off which the water passes in a gentle stream.
plants, let it be fuchsias or geraniums or roses in pots, or anything else that is growing fast, that are plunged to their rims in refuse hops, ashes or tanbark, will far outstrip a batch of the same sort with the pots bare? There is no evaporation from the sides of the plunged pot and consequently a more uniform moisture, and that is the sole reason. This is very marked and is a good lesson for us. Letting plants whose roots are active get repeatedly on the dry side day after day will tell on them and stunt their growth, compared with those that are kept at a more uniform moisture. This may be of no detriment to our bedding geraniums or coleus or cannas, but it is to the plants that we want to make a fine growth or produce fine flowers.
Some may say, " Look at the plants in the field. My carnations have not had a drop of water or rain in six weeks, but they are growing." They are under entirely different conditions. We hoe the surface, or ought to. Evaporation from the ground is continually going on, and the looser we keep the surface the faster will be evaporation, and the more evaporation from the surface the more moisture rises to the surface from the depths of the ground to nourish the roots. This is called capillary attraction. Hence it follows that the deeper we have plowed or dug, or the more we have broken up the subsoil, the better will capillary attraction benefit the plant. So there is a more uniform moisture at the root than you think, even in the dryest time.
All this benefit is of course cut off entirely in cultivating in pots and on the bench.
Have you ever noticed where a drain or sewer was laid four feet deep in a stiff clay the grass for years over the drain will be green in the dryest time, because by the disturbance and breaking up of the soil capillary attraction is helped?
The sub-watering experiments on our benches is yet too new for me to enter into, and our trade papers have given full accounts of the methods. Something practical may be yet evolved by our learned professors.
In conclusion you should keep one man watering one house. He may water half a dozen, but if it is the same man and he is a gardener he will remember the condition in which he left the plants on the previous day, and will know just about what will want it the next. A good, intelligent, faithful waterer is as valuable a man as you have on your place.