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.
Of late years the demand for flowers has increased considerably, and the rage for fine-foliage plants that existed but a short time ago appears to be gradually on the wane, and year by year the love for flowering plants and flowers in a cut state, for various purposes, has increased. However beautiful foliage plants may appear, they can never take the place of, or rise in public estimation to the same level as, flowering plants. Many fine-foliage plants are noble objects, when well grown, for associating with flowering plants and for decorative purposes, and are regarded by some as beautiful as flowers. It is surprising that at nearly all the exhibitions of late, foliage plants have been shown in the greatest numbers, especially for table decoration : during the past year I have not seen one flowering plant staged for this purpose. This alone would almost induce one to believe that they are far more popular for this purpose than flowering plants. Such we do not think really is the case, and it would not be difficult to point to several cases where foliage plants are only considered of secondary importance, and where their use for room decoration is entirely dispensed with, and flowering subjects alone used.
Where two hundred plants or more are in daily request for months through the winter for room decoration, and all or the majority being flowering plants, it is a great strain upon a gardener at times to find suitable subjects in sufficient number and variety to meet the demand, especially during the worst months of the year, which may safely be considered from October to the New Year.
Many plants are anything but suitable for room decoration, and do not last sufficiently long to pay for the trouble of growing. The task is more difficult still when only a certain class of flowering plants of a choice nature are admired, and those required in large numbers. For example, a vase that will hold a pot 9 or 10 inches in diameter, and that has to be filled with a trained standard Mignonette, and nothing else, until Hybrid Roses can take its place, causes a great deal of work. Mignonette in rooms does not last long, at least the fragrance is soon gone, and the plant must be removed and replaced with another. The damage done to the plant by a short stay in the dwelling-house takes a long time to repair. To accomplish the decoration of rooms successfully requires a good deal of care and forethought. To maintain a supply for cutting and the ornamentation of plant-houses is not so difficult as to provide large quantities of choice flowering plants suitable for the embellishment of rooms. For this purpose plants have to be grown in pots of various sizes, to suit the different vases.
This must be kept in view from the first, or else the work becomes far more difficult.
Eucharis amazonica is one of the best room plants with which I am acquainted, if grown in 5- or 6-inch pots : the former is used here. In small pots it is easy to manage and to keep a succession of its beautiful flowers; a few can be rested at short intervals, and again introduced into heat to throw up their flowers. They stand room decoration well, and are scarcely ever injured. It is a fragrant and lovely flower, and commands general admiration. When plants are placed in rooms they often suffer considerably from gas; and another evil nearly as bad is careless housemaids opening the windows direct upon some choice tender plant. A vase of Lily of the Valley, produced during November, when delicate and tender, is soon spoiled by cold draughts, and its time of lasting in good condition considerably reduced. This is by no means the worst evil gardeners have to contend with in room decoration. Some of the most peculiar-shaped things have to be filled with a number of plants for which they are not adapted : plants have to be turned out of their pots, and in some instances half the roots pulled off the outer plants to fit them in so as to produce the desired effect.
Orchids are amongst the most useful of plants for room decoration, and it is surprising they are not more largely grown. In rooms not lighted with gas they last a long time without injury to the plant, especially cool or intermediate species. What is more choice or beautiful than Odontoglossum cirrosum or O. Alexandras, which will last a month or more in good condition, and can be managed so as to be in bloom during winter if a little extra heat be given while growth is being made? Maxillaria picta is another sweet little Orchid, and flowers profusely in small pots; but, unfortunately, it does not last long. Coelogyne cristata is another suitable kind. Calanthes can also be used, but the tops of the pots should be well dressed with Lycopodium. Many other useful kinds could be enumerated, but one more only shall be named - it is one of the oldest and best known, and doubtless the most useful of all Orchids - Dendrobium nobile. What is more lovely or better adapted for this purpose? It lasts a long time, and can be readily grown in small 4- or 5-inch pots, and larger as cases may demand. In two years good flowering plants can be grown from the small pseudo-bulbs, which readily produce themselves after flowering.
A number taken off and placed in 3-inch pots for the first season and then into 5-inch the following spring, suitable plants may be produced, and if ripened well will not fail to flower and be lovely little objects. If not grown in small pots, one or two spikes may be cut from larger plants and placed in moist soil or sand, in small pots, and the surface covered with Lycopod. They last a long time in this way, and cause little or no injury to the plants from which they were cut.
Primulas and Cyclamen are invaluable plants and could not easily be dispensed with for winter, being suitable for rooms. The Primula lasts a considerable time, and soon recruits itself when brought out, and flowers profusely again. As a window-plant for cottagers, it is unsurpassed, and will bloom well in a cottage - window for six months. Prunus sinensis flore pleno and triloba are also valuable, and deserve to be more grown. They last nearly as long in light positions in rooms as when allowed to remain in the conservatory; and no plant can be more easily forced into bloom. They are as easily propagated as Deutzias from the young growths taken off with a heel, and in a season or two make nice plants, varying from six to ten shoots, in 5- and 6-inch pots. The treatment that suits the Peach suits these Prunuses well, and when growth is completed they can be placed outside to ripen the wood.
At no season of the year are flowers so much appreciated as during the winter months when all outside is quietly at rest, and at no season are they so bright and cheerful; and perhaps this accounts in a great measure for the increasing demand in winter over that of summer. Flowers inside, except of a very choice nature, become common when the outside borders and flower-beds are gay with a variety of plants. For instance, the Zonal Pelargoniums, the most brilliant and cheerful flowers that can be produced during the winter, are in summer looked upon as common when they would naturally continue to bloom for months in succession without much care or trouble. The same might be said of many plants. The New Year is a festive season, and for the occasion floral decorations are considered indispensable. Unfortunately this is a season when flowers are considered scarce and most difficult to produce. After the New Year days gradually lengthen, light increases, and plants naturally unfold their blooms better than during the two preceding months. But for the dullest months there need be no break in the supply of flowers, and the conservatory may be kept as gay during the whole winter as any time in the year. This may scarcely seem feasible to those who fail to maintain a supply.
But failure in this respect is due to more causes than one, and not the least important is carelessness in the selection of suitable varieties for early blooming. Amongst Zonal Pelargoniums, I must still cling to Vesuvius, Prince of Wales, and Wonderful; these are not surpassed for freedom of flowering during winter : a good light one will be found in Apple Blossom, although as a florist's flower it is poor. These will continue to flower, and profusely, in a temperature of 45° to 50°. Many of the large-trussing kinds require a much higher temperature in which to expand their blooms properly; they are not to be condemned on that account, because if more heat is given, some kinds do well. Harry Turner, a good pink, and Leopold, a good dark, both large-trussing kinds, promise well in the same temperature as the Vesuvius type. Vesuvius, although "weighed in the scales" by some growers and "found wanting," cannot be dispensed with for any large-trussing kind with which I am acquainted. A selection of plants is needed for winter work, and to a large extent success depends upon this matter. When proper kinds are grown, even of Rhododendrons, Azaleas, and the like, much of the difficulty of forcing is reduced, and the work is accomplished with ease and certainty.
There can be no doubt that to maintain a blaze of bloom and abundance for cutting, and plants for room decoration, a good deal of forcing has to be attended to, not only in autumn, but in spring, as stated in previous notes in the 'Gardener;' and unless this system of growing plants purposely year by year entirely changes their nature, as far as their flowering period is concerned, it is useless to force in early autumn before the various plants have enjoyed a natural rest.