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.
December - dreary, the fag-end of the year, mid-winter, and a whole catalogue of dismal associations - has yet its cheerful aspects. Christmas, like May, is said to be merry, as we wish all our readers will be at that season; and if there be any truth in a hidden telegraphic system of spirits and sympathies among animated beings in the universe, we shall be all the better if the readers of the 'Gardener' wish us a Merry Christmas in return. From a floral point of view, we are not by any means certain that December is the most dismal month of the year. November, and even October, are often greater floral blanks; we appreciate all evergreens more in December, especially those with berries, and indoors there is a greater wealth of flowers.
We propose to take a survey of the plants which occur to us as being in season at that time, with comments; and first we shall begin with stove flowers, as they present themselves to our mind's eye. One of the finest of all stove climbers for winter is Thunbergia Harrisii, a most chaste and grand flower, the colour a delicate blue, produced in large clusters, flowers all winter, and of the easiest culture: a cutting of September 1870 planted out covers more than fifty feet of rafter with abundance of its racemose clusters. Next comes Passiflora kermesina, with clouds of crimson bloom on its elegant spray: the flowers make an elegant margin to a basket of cut flowers.
Ipomoea Horsfalliae will be at its best in December, an immense grower and bloomer, producing heavy bunches of flower-buds at every joint, which open in succession: it also is crimson. The crop of Passiflora princeps will not be over until December; it is, perhaps the prince of Passion-flowers. Bougainvillea glabra beats the Fuchsia as an accommodating plant: it blooms perpetually, or may be had perpetually in bloom. Our largest supply of it will be in December. A cutting of September twelvemonths is now an immense plant, and has literally bushels of bloom on it: it is one of the very best plants for cut flowers, as the flower-stalks can be cut any length. The last winter climber we shall mention is Manettia bicolor, a very elegant plant with a profusion of orange scarlet flowers, after the style of a Cuphea or Libonia. This is really a very beautiful plant, and can be had in 6-inch pots. Stalked with a few twigs of birch, it is an elegant vase plant. Of stove flowering-plants for pot culture there are abundance. Gesnera elongata, an old and showy plant easily made into a specimen for a vase: small plants for furnishing can be easily propagated in spring, when the old plants should be well cut back: it is a woody plant.
The various herbaceous Gesneras are now in perfection; we specially like the green-foliaged varieties. Thyrsacanthus rutilans, a noble plant for the centres of stands, should be grown in a moist cold pit in summer. Sericographis Ghiesbreghtiana, not so much grown as it deserves. Justicia formosa, which few new plants will equal when well done, can be made into a huge specimen or tiny plants for edging vases. Eranthemum pulchellum, of which the same may be repeated, both with flowers of the richest colour. Libonia floribunda, not strictly a stove-plant, but requires a warm place in winter. This, with a lot of other things, we intend growing all summer, planted out in a cold pit, and pot them up in September. Cypripedium insigne and venustum, Calanthe Yeitchii and vestita, may be all classed with ordinary stove-plants for December. Begonia fuchsi-oides, Landersii, and insignis, the last especially, are fine December plants, and should be grown in quantity: insignia is a most useful plant for dinner-table decoration and house-work. Epiphyllums of every shape, size, and variety can be had in perfection in December, and answer every purpose. Euphorbia jacquiniflora is the prince of pot stove-plants for winter: we grow it in battalions of different sizes; it does for any sort of work.
Specimens are elegant for the centres of vases, edged round with something, say Panicum variegatum, to contrast. It answers for edging small baskets by cutting the curved spikes and pegging them down. Its brilliant colour enlivens any place where it may be put; we also plant it out largely, which makes it show itself to advantage. It is by no means a shy plant, and will grow against the back wall of a conservatory or intermediate house if the roots be in well-drained soil. The Poinsettia is for December what scarlet Geraniums are for the flower-garden in summer, and Zonales for the conservatory. It can be started and grown in a cold pit in summer, and from the 1st of October and onwards in the stove. It is best propagated from the young wood in July and August. In September four or five cuttings may be put in 4-inch pots for dwarf plants. We have grown it from 6 inches to 16 feet high. For the decoration of staircases, halls, etc, large plants are invaluable; indeed, it can be used for any decorative purpose. It soon loses its leaves, however, in a cool conservatory.
Heat is essential in winter.
Turning to greenhouse plants, we know of a large plant of Tacsonia, van Volxemi, trained over a roof which will be covered with blooms all December. We have it planted outdoors like a Vine, its head being trained to the rafter inside. We have it also inarched on the J. manicata for a stock, and also on its own roots inside. Hyemalis, Wilmoreana, and gracilis Heaths are easy of culture, and can be had in quantity for conservatory, or single specimens for rooms: the first mentioned is really superb. For December there are other Heaths, but these are the best. They should not be crowded amongst other plants, nor do we care about them for cutting. Epacrises must be placed on a par with the Heaths just mentioned: they are all exceedingly bright and showy, but not well suited for cutting from: at least, we like to cut them as little as possible. The Camellia is in full force in December, even out of doors, in the south: any gardener with a lot of Camellia blooms in December will know well what to do with them. Chinese Primulas are perhaps the next plant we should mention as being of a staple character. Large plants, well bloomed, are exceedingly neat for small vases. Small plants in 4 - inch pots are excellent for edging: these should be grown in battalions for various purposes.
Tree Carnations of different colours are a leading feature for December, and of easy culture. Large plants which have been well attended to out of doors on a sunny border, pinched and watered, lifted in October full of buds, make a fine display in winter; the blooms last a long time after being cut. Spring-struck plants grown in small pots are useful for mixing in stands in the conservatory. Cyclamens of sorts come in in quantities for all purposes, like Primulas. Small seedling plants make neat edging-plants for small stands; and the pretty little Oxalis tricolor is, if possible, more showy for winter, but does not last so long. This is a plant which should also be grown in quantity, and managed along with the Cyclamens. Cinerarias early sown will be in bloom in quantity, in light airy houses, and are of great use as conservatory plants. The plant does not stand the heat of rooms, and the flowers soon fade when cut. Schyzostylis coccinea will be at its best in December. This is an exceedingly easily-managed plant, and very showy, planted out in spring and lifted in October when the flower-spikes are up.
Ours were not lifted until the month of November, and are now in a cool orchard-house, waiting their turn of the conservatory in December. This plant can soon be got up in quantity from seed. Angelonia angustifolia, another perpetual-blooming plant, with strong purple spikes of flowers, should be grown from cuttings in spring, planted out and lifted; wants a dry airy house; can also be had early from seed. Mignonette, of which we cannot discover more than one sort, although we have sown several, only just wants to be mentioned, because it must never be forgotten for the winter. Trees trained umbrella-shaped in the usual way can be used in stands, with the surface dressed with smaller flowering-plants, otherwise they are rather gawky. We have a plan for Tree-Mignonette, where the shoots are not tied down, but tied to wires which are made to radiate from the top of the centre stick, like a chimney-sweep's brush. The trees do not look so stiff, and the blooms are bristling outwards in a round head, like little standard trees. Roses of the Tea section will have a sprinkling of bloom, and even the Hybrid Perpetuals housed in October with the buds formed.
Souvenir de la Malmaison, old though it be, is most useful in this way; also Madame Bosanquet and Gloire de Dijon. Heliotrope, with a little forcing, will, like Mignonette, be in in quantity, and never fails to be useful and admired. Neapolitan Violets are, like the Tree Carnations and the two last-named flowers, always in demand, and most appreciated in December. The bulk of them will be in cold pits and frames, but a few dozens are useful in pots for the conservatory, if the foliage be green and crisp, and the plants bristling with flowers. They are best potted up in October. This is a moisture-loving plant, and we never had it in such fine condition as on the south coast, approaching the climate of Nice and Mentone - big fat blooms on stalks as long as a black-lead pencil.
Forced flowers still remain, which come in easily in December; and first of all is the white Indian Azalea, which contrasts so well with the scarlet Poinsettia. Hybrid Rhododendrons, especially Nobleanum, Persian Lilacs, Deutzias, Jasminum nudiflorum, Forsythia viridissima, Spirea prunifolia, etc, all come in flower early in December with little forcing, if the plants be well prepared. Roman Hyacinths with almost no forcing, Dutch Hyacinths, Van Thol Tulips, and Narcissus also come in easily if potted in time, and plunged deep in sawdust in the open air in the full sun, care being taken not to over-force when taken under glass, as that will retard them more effectually than cold. A few Hoteia Japonica and Lily of the Valley will come in about the end of the month.
We might still return and enumerate more plants of the various sections noticed which now occur to us, but enough are mentioned for the floral illustration of the month. We mention only one more, Luculia gratissima, a grand winter plant; we have it against a back wall, also as a tree planted out with Hydrangea-like leaves and blooms, and we mean to try it out of doors against a wall.
The Squire's Gardener.