This section is from the book "The Florist And Garden Miscellany". Also see: All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!.
"Well," remarked an amateur friend a few days since, at the close of a visit to a somewhat extensive horticultural establishment, " I am delighted with what I have seen. The stoves contained many remarkably beautiful plants: the Orchids were gorgeous, their richness of perfume still seems to mingle with the atmosphere; the conservatories and greenhouses were exhibitions to create admiration in every lover of horticulture; but," added he, with a playful slap on the shoulder, '* the Heath-house, my dear friend, is the house for me. I think I never saw so interesting an assemblage of plants. The colours of their blossoms are so various, and their shapes so endless and so chaste. What a combination of classic forms might not an ingenious artist invent from a study of their beautiful tubular and vase-like corollas ! And independent of their blossoms, they are interesting plants. The colour and character of their foliage must attract and interest. In fact, they realise the description which a lady in my hearing once gave them, they are ' plants to love.' Were it not for the proverbial difficulty experienced in their cultivation, I certainly should devote my little greenhouse to a small collection of them".
I assured him that the difficulty was only apparent and not real; and by way of exemplification, I gave him, as we walked back to the station, a brief lecture on the principle and practice of Heath-culture. In the evening, while recalling the events of the day, it occurred to me that the substance of our discourse might not be unacceptable to some of the numerous readers of the Florist; I therefore beg to place the same at your service.
When an error has once taken firm hold of the mind, it becomes a matter of no mean difficulty in its possessor to divest himself of the prejudices to which such an error gives birth, even after he has become convinced that the tenets which he formerly held were, erroneous. Thus has it been with the culture of Heaths. Although, by the means of horticultural publications, much of the (hitherto considered) real difficulty has been shewn to be only apparent, the idea of difficulty still lingers amongst those who of all others would be glad to divest themselves of it, the amateurs. I hope on the present occasion to be of service to them.
It should be borne in mind as an indispensable preliminary, that the Heath, being excessively fine-rooted, and its branches peculiarly "hard-wooded," demands more than ordinary attention; and that to place it in a miscellaneous collection of greenhouse plants, to "share and share alike," can only terminate in the production of a miserable specimen, with the consequent disappointment to its possessor, whose ideas of what it should have been probably were derived from seeing the same species at a metropolitan exhibition, or in the collection of a good grower of the genus.
Indispensable adjuncts in successful Heath-culture are, that they shall have abundance of light, free circulation of air around every plant, plenty of pot-room, a fibrous heath-soil, in which no trace of iron is combined (a circumstance which renders many heath-soils unfit for the purpose); that the roots never become thoroughly dry; that the pots be guarded from the direct action of the sun's rays, and that the frost be excluded, beyond which heat is not requisite. Any expensive heating apparatus for a building to be devoted exclusively to Heaths is uncalled for. Every Heath-house should be furnished with the means of covering in winter, and fires dispensed with as much as possible. After a succession of damp or foggy weather during autumn or winter, it will be found necessary to use fires to dispel the damp. Let this be done when the house can be well ventilated. Never use fires in a Heath-house for other purposes than to exclude frost without a liberal ventilation, and in all cases some can be employed. One great essential in their successful culture is to guard against etiolation. Although the latter can scarcely be termed a disease, it induces many: mildew follows in its train, with weakness of constitution, and paleness in the colours of the flowers which such plants produce.
No Heaths can ever be satisfactory if grown in a dark structure. I have seen plants in full bloom removed from their proper house to decorate a conservatory attached to dwelling-rooms, in a few days lose the peculiar richness of tint of which they are capable; and plants allowed to expand their blossoms in such a place exhibit a paleness of tint in a more remarkable degree. On this account, combined with many others, Heaths are peculiarly unfitted for placing in dwelling-rooms: the dry atmosphere and absence of light soon play sad havoc with them, the former especially. Their rigid leaves, containing but a scant amount of cellular matters, can ill brook a liberal draw upon their tissues. And although the liability of the Heath to suffer mildew would appear to indicate a predisposition to a dry atmosphere, such is not the case, as a little reflection will shew. The Heath does not suffer from a damp air, if that air can be kept in motion. The peculiar locality of which the Heath, as a genus, is a native, must expose it to a constantly moving atmosphere, and that should be afforded it in its artificial existence.
To preserve plants in luxuriant health, they should not be allowed to become pot-bound. The greatest danger from such a condition is experienced when you give the plant a larger pot, because, unless great caution is exercised, the new mould appropriates the greater part of the applied moisture, and the removed plant, like Tantalus, expires in the midst of plenty. And in potting Heaths never use fine soil. With a compost of coarse texture, a plant does not become so easily pot-bound. And should a lack of accommodation prevent your giving larger pots as often as you wish, the coarser the soil, the more readily can the roots be disentangled at the repotting.
Heaths, when their roots have become a compact mass from want of pot-room, are more liable to suffer from lack of moisture, and from the influence of the sun on the sides of their pots; and under such conditions, the foliage at the base of the shoots is frequently found of a sickly yellow, dropping off at the touch. With plants which are frequently "shifted," this seldom occurs. When it arises from the former condition, a successful mode of procedure is as follows.
In January or February, or at some period before the drying winds of March, or the aspiring suns of April begin to exert their influence, take the plants under notice, turn them out of their pots, clean away all the old drainage, and with a pointed stick loosen the roots at the base of the ball of each, and you will probably find that all the roots in contact with the sides of the pot are black and lifeless. With some pointed instrument clear away the whole of them, and well scarify the ball. Let it be done carefully; and not so rashly or so completely as if a Geranium were under your hands. Having cleared away all the dead roots, and well disentangled the living portions, repot the plant in a sandy heath-mould, to which a liberal portion of rotten leaves is added, and replace it in some shady part of your Heath structure. Give it no water to settle the mould. The plant operated on should have been well watered the day previous to the operation, and the mould used damp, without being wet. If a dry day ensues, syringe the foliage of the plant, the surface of the mould, and the pot; and in a couple of days give the plant a good watering, and gradually inure it to its usual light and air.
In a short time you will have the satisfaction of seeing the young white healthy rootlets covering the exterior of the ball. Now is the time to give the plant a liberal shift; and by the end of the summer you will have little cause to complain of the appearance of your plant.
A word or two about the out-door treatment of Heaths. If a Heath-house were constructed in a proper situation, and with suitable addenda, such would not be requisite. But presuming it to be persisted in, some easily applied shelter to ward off heavy winds and rains should be provided. A thunder-storm, or a cold night's rain, as summer draws to a close, is often fatal to exposed plants. But under all circumstances, get them under shelter betimes. Don't adopt any absurdity in the shape of periodical turning out or taking in. The abandonment of periodical potting, of periodical Pine ripening, and of periodical garden-operations generally (I mean periodical in the sense of a blind adherence to old-established dogmas), by our best gardeners, is a significant sign of the advancement of gardening from a mere empiricism to an art founded upon known principles. Exercise care, forethought, and judgment. If a plant seems to require a different treatment from its fellows, give it that treatment. If its wood is tardy in ripening, give it assistance; for bear in mind that a well-ripened shoot, no matter whether in a Vine, a Peach, or a Heath, is the only shoot that can produce a perfect head of flowers or bunch of fruit.
During the summer months, if your plants occupy a situation where they are not plunged, let them stand on some porous material, such as fine cinders, and place them at such distances as will allow each plant to be free of its neighbours. In hot weather let the ground be kept damp, and the pots be frequently syringed as well as the plants.
Many Heaths after blooming require a liberal application of the pruning-knife; judgment and circumstances will direct it. Don't aim at producing a pudding at the expense of fine branches loaded with blossom. When you have pruned away the old shoots, don't stop asrain the young growth, unless some defect in the plant demands another shoot to fill a vacant space. By doing so, you may certainly obtain three blooming shoots instead of one; but you sacrifice quality at the shrine of quantity. Profuse "stopping" m the Heath can only be justified while the plant is young, and being formed for its future career. Then, of course, wood is the only object. Never prune and "shift" simultaneously. If you prune first, let the plant regain its vigour before you repot. Shift any plant when it requires it, regardless of season. There are circumstances which may modify this as a general rule, but circumstances must determine them.
To recapitulate: to grow Heaths well, you must give them plenty of light and air, - moving air. Pay especial attention to the welfare of the roots. Recollect the advice of Mr. Barnes in regard to Pines, that they can only be cultivated to advantage with plenty of live roots. The Heath, under negligent treatment, is liable to have dead ones in abundance.
Above all, do not be disheartened when you lose a favourite plant, which you sometimes will. The Heath is precarious in its existence, notwithstanding all our attention. But the abundance of the blossoms which they produce, the interesting character of the plants, the length of time they remain in blossom, and the little expense beyond unwearied attention which their cultivation involves, all combine to render them peculiarly attractive to every lover of plants. G. L.