This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
To the forcing gardener the past two months have been both heart and head aching, heartaching because of the heavy coal bill which, week after week, is running up, and then "per contra," the serious reflection, what is the result going to be 1 The probable result will be capable of close calculation by a few more weeks; early Grapes and Peaches to a certainty even now. But what will each Peach have cost, and what will be the paying price of each pound of Grapes 1 These are questions which weigh on the heart of many a gardener, for employers will often ask the pertinent question, What have the coals been burned for 1 These two months have also been headaching because of the heavy balance between a temperature of 60° in houses, and 20°, or even 10° out-doors, with sunless skies, and consequent etiolation of all active vegetation, anxieties of setting, and thinning, and thrips - anxieties by night and day.
Once on a time early Grapes, Peaches, or Strawberries from one's own hothouses in May was an achievement, a sort of triumph, a rare thing indeed, and he was a happy and successful man who accomplished the feat; the forcing of fruits was then the luxury of labour, an elegant pastime, and everybody was pleased because the garden was not pressed into the category of life's necessities. But in these latter days no gardener or employer dreams of forcing fruits or flowers merely for the pleasure of the thing, and ripe Grapes, Strawberries, or Peaches in March are no achievement at all; but the man who undertakes those duties and fails, is himself a failure, and a useless fellow. The gardener who wishes to make himself a reputation must do the impossible, or what is next to it. Early Grapes in January have long ago been achieved, now Strawberries all the year round seems rising above the practical horizon. The first pound of tea was a royal luxury, now it is the pauper's necessity of life. Franklin amused himself by fetching lightning from the clouds with a bit of wet cord, now lightning itself has become a necessity of our lives; we now amuse ourselves with "phones" of various sorts, as the great American did with his string, but by-and-by some enterprising firm will be turning the thunder into a necessity.
Forcing-houses have apparently reached their climax, and must be superseded; they have served their day and purpose by bringing a coveted and vastly distant climate and its products to our doors, now the distance has been annihilated, we can easily go to the climate and fetch its products. Shall we continue to keep zoological gardens and botanic gardens, the necessity for which seems to be vanishing, or shall we spend our holidays among the beasts and plants in their native habitats? - it really seems as if it were coming to that. Already we are giving up the cultivation of the Pine-Apple, and really, with all those heaps of red-cheeked Baldwins and yellow Newtown Pippins in our street windows, we may economically give up our orchards. The bulk of forced Grapes in the London market comes from the Channel Islands, where the heat of the sun is found to be cheaper than coal, which points the possibility of flooding our markets with the best Grapes from the south of France, and it only awaits an enterprising practical beginning to open the way, just as the American meat question has been solved.
Who will say that we may not yet have ship-loads of American Peaches poured into our markets, like Bananas, or Mackerel from Kin-sale, equally perishable 1 Till then, however, our forcing must go on, since it has descended to a matter of business, in the most economical manner possible. We have to consider first how coals are to be saved, and second, how to realise the greatest possible return. Now in the matter of economy of fuel, in these winter days, there will be something like fourteen hours of darkness, when the fire has all the duty to perform in the shape of keeping up temperature; during those fourteen hours the whole of the glass of the forcing-house may be covered with some protecting material, such as mats or canvas; as a little additional darkness is of no moment, this will conserve the indoor temperature enormously, and consequently economise fuel. In forcing-houses no more glass should be used in their construction than is absolutely necessary; and fronts and ends may sometimes be matted up permanently in winter with advantage.
Economy of fuel is much in the hands of the stoker - he should be no sluggard in the morning; fires should be stirred long before sunrise, to anticipate and assist the coming light and sunshine; by day it will generally be sufficient, with no additional fuel, if by managing the furnace the heat is prevented from escaping by the chimney.
But great as is the importance of economising fuel, the best economy is, after all, a good and successful crop. Half a crop, or no crop, with only the trees to be kept in health for another essay, is a poor return for coals and labour. Given the subject to be forced, in good condition, the most essential matter is to drive cautiously. When one starts to drive a long journey, to get quickly and safely to the end of it the horse must not be put to his full speed at the beginning, neither must he be left to his own natural walking pace, but with a gentle control of the reins, keeping him well in hand, using the whip judiciously, and using up his remaining pace at the finish. The forcing of fruits are just something after the same analogy; if you wish to get there in April with your Grapes, begin the journey quietly in November - a month later will do for Peaches - but at all times, especially at beginning and mid journey, spare the energies of the trees, drive steadily, avoiding fits and starts and over-excitement, - it is the rock the inexperienced often split upon in the anxiety to get there. A weak horse will pull you through with careful driving; the strong may do the same, in spite of mismanagement, when the weak would break down at once.
Again, let the load be no greater than your horse or tree can carry; overloading, or the last straw, breaks the camel's back.
It does not need to be forgotten that the real secret of successful forcing lies in the previous management of the trees or plants; if the crop is not in them, no forcing, however cautiously managed, can fetch it out of them. This is, however, a matter for consideration when the forcing season has departed. The Squire's Gardener.