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.
THE Gladiolus as a florist's flower is of very recent date. Very rapid strides have been made during the last ten or a dozen years in bringing it up to its present standard, but the high prices which are charged for many of these newer varieties have tended to keep its cultivation in a somewhat backward condition. Like so many hardy flowers which have been improved by cultivators - more so than many - the Gladiolus deserves to hold rank amongst the noblest, the most gorgeous, the most beautiful of flowers. Amongst flowers of the same typical character, there is none that excels it, none its equal. But it is seldom seen grown equal to its deserts. Not unfrequently cultivators in esse, when purchasing, give their order under the express condition of obtaining the greatest possible number of corms, and in the greatest possible number of varieties. An order given and executed under such conditions is certain to include many sorts which will not give satisfaction. It is infinitely better to limit the number of varieties, and grow several of each of these, than to go in for variety at the expense of quality. The pride which many - may I say all of us? - feel in having a great number of varieties of particular plants under our own care is more a matter of sentiment than of practical utility.
A dozen plants of one really good variety is practically of more value in all respects than were the dozen plants composed of as many varieties not quite so good as that particular sort. In the case of a comparatively expensive flower like the Gladiolus, it is the more necessary to guard against purchasing variety at the expense of quality. It is advisable therefore, in giving an order for these, to explain to the florist tradesman the desire to obtain thoroughly reliable sorts without considering the matter of variety too closely. For the benefit of those who prefer to order the sorts themselves, a short list of good cheap sorts is here given. Many amateurs of limited means either grow or are desirous of becoming cultivators of the Gladiolus - to such this list is expected to prove of value. Adele Souchet, Adolphe Brongniart, Elegans, John Waterer, Madame Furtado, Meyerbeer, Milton, Didon, Rossini, Penelope, Velleda, Madame Basse-ville. This, a more expensive selection, though the newer sorts are not included - Beatrix, De Mirbel, Marquis of Lothian, Le Phare, Le Vesuve, Lulli, Murillo, Shakespeare, Virginalis, Octavie, Orpheus, Horace Vernet.
The Gladiolus delights in an open, light, rich soil. Last season our stock was planted in an extra open and rich mixture, and considering the state of the bulbs at planting, I have never had Gladiolus finer. In 1877 the cold wet season kept the entire stock in a very backward condition; many of them were lifted, potted, and flowered during winter in the conservatory. The effect on the young corm was very bad; indeed not only were many of the flowering stock of that season destroyed without young corms being formed, but in the case of those that did prosper, they were small and badly ripened. Last planting-season pits were taken out and filled with a mixture of loam, old mushroom dung, white sand, and soot. Several corms were grown in each pit. The most of the plants grew very strongly and flowered well, and the young corms for this season's planting are large and fine. I do not know a plan that would give better results, in the case of growers of small quantities, than that above described of taking out deep pits and planting the Gladiolus in these in a prepared compost. Where they are grown in quantity the ground should be deeply trenched in autumn, breaking up all clods and working in a liberal dressing of light manure.
In spring, on every occasion of suitable weather, the ground should be surface-pointed. This is a means of getting the soil into a sweet and open condition. In the south the planting-season extends from February to April. I find the beginning of the latter month a very suitable time for planting here. If planted in clumps, holes may be taken out with a trowel for each single corm, and the corm surrounded with fine white sand. If in beds, drills drawn to the depth of 5 inches, with a layer of sand sown along the bottom of each drill, makes a very suitable and expeditious way of planting. When the Gladiolus are planted - about 8 inches apart is a suitable width, and 15 inches between each row - a handful of sand is required over each, then the earth drawn over, and .the ground between the rows forked over. After the growths have pushed a few inches the space between the rows ought again to be forked, and in another week or two a mulching of half cow, half horse manure spread over the entire bed. Stakes are required before the flower-spikes show themselves, but ought to be long enough to tie the spikes to as they advance. If the spikes are intended for exhibition, shading must be resorted to, as well to preserve the lower flowers as to enhance the purity of the flowers.
Spikes that come on too early may be kept in good condition placed in bottles of water and set away in a very cool cellar. Keeping a little clean water in the opened flowers is supposed to preserve these from fading so soon as they would otherwise do. Any individual flower not set straight on the spike is easily worked into position.
With regard to harvesting the corms, there is no particular hurry for this operation being performed; indeed, it may be considered somewhat problematical whether it were better to take them up in autumn or to leave them in the ground over the winter and transplant in spring. Taken up in autumn, many of them are yet quite green in foliage; allow this to ripen by placing the stock on the floor of a cool vinery, or in any other place where like conditions are obtainable. When the foliage becomes yellowish it separates readily from the corm. The roots should be cut off at same time, but not too closely, the young brood carefully picked from the base of the corm, and preserved, and these latter stored away for the winter. I leave all the old coatings of the corm intact until before being planted, as it is a most efficient means of keeping them from the air during winter. They winter very well thus, laid on shelves in a cool room. The young brood I pack away amongst dryish sand until spring, when they are planted out thickly in rows. The ground is carefully prepared, drills drawn 9 inches apart, a little sand sprinkled along the bottom of the drills, and the bulblets pressed in 4 inches apart.
They are left here till they flower, which will be the second year after planting with most of them; they are afterwards treated like the other flowering stock.
Those who incline to raise seedlings from seed of their own saving-would be obliged, in Scotland, to start the plants intended for seeding earlier. Good kinds alone should be grown for this purpose. The seed-bearing plants ought further to be cross-fertilised with pollen from other good sorts. As the seed-pods show signs of approaching ripeness, watch them, and pick off the pods as they become ready, laying them out in a dry and warm structure to finish. Use boxes for raising and growing the seedlings in, sowing about the beginning of April in a rich open compost. Cover the surfaces with moss and keep moist. A very slightly-heating dung hotbed and frame is a very suitable place for the purpose of giving the seedlings a start. Air must be admitted gradually at first, increasing it until the plants are grown in the open air. In order to have good bulbs that will flower the ensuing year, there must be no neglect in the matter of watering. On the approach of cold days and nights in autumn, it will be beneficial to have them removed to a cool structure to finish growth. Allow them to remain till spring in the boxes, when they are treated like the rest of the stock. Those who do not like the trouble of saving seed themselves may obtain it from some of the larger seed firms.
It is not, however, a profitable way of getting up a collection, as very few of the seedlings will be found worth growing. If the characteristics of this flower were fixed, as they may be some day, so that good varieties could be depended on being produced from seed, the cultivation of the Gladiolus would be increased to an infinite extent.
R. P. Brotherston.