This section is from the book "The Gardener V2", 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.
Plants and flowers have become intimately associated with our everyday lives. We have recourse to them in seasons of social enjoyment and in the hours of sorrow. They have long been plucked for the babe, and strewn on the path of the bride and on the graves of the dead. They delight the child, and raise the shout of admiration from its lips. They tax the intellect of the mature and learned, and, as they come and depart with the seasons, give lessons of wisdom to all. And whatever may be said for or against the fashion in which the dinner-tables of the affluent are now decorated with plants and flowers - to a moderate extent, and tastefully associated with fruits - there cannot be a question that the effects produced are exceedingly pleasing to the eye, and calculated profitably to excite the mind. Be this as it may - I leave that phase of the question - dinner-table decoration with plants and flowers has become so widely spread and general that you will find it in the metropolitan mansion, and I have met with it where not much expected, in the abode of the hill-farmer; and to the gardener it has become so "great a fact," that no mean portion of his forethought and time must be devoted to it; while it has diminished - considerably diminished - fine art to please the eye in the kitchen; and very much eased the arms of waiters.
To gardeners, this part of their duties has assumed an amount of importance that some years ago could not have been dreamed of.
Fortunately the class of plants - namely, fine graceful-foliaged plants - which are found so very useful and effective for this order of decoration, has very much increased of late years. Associated on table with epergnes filled with flowers, they are productive of the most pleasing effects, - the majority of plants which principally display beauty in their blooms being less suitable, unless, indeed, they are trained into forms not natural to them. This takes time and labour in tying and training; and more than likely, after being once used, their blooms are so tarnished as to render the plant of no avail for the season. Besides, persistent-leaved and some berried plants of graceful habits, are, as a rule, more effective when set down on a white ground, and associated with so many things that glitter and shine, and especially when cut flowers are included in the designs.
It may not be too much to say that the choice of plants often made is not what it might be, with more pleasure and profit to all concerned. Fortunately many of the most suitable plants for this purpose are in a general way easily grown, and not very easily injured by the exposure to which they are subject. There are, however, some points of importance in growing plants for this as well as for all special purposes, the aim in this case being to produce plants of some considerable size - having health and freshness - in smaller pots than are needed or desirable for general purposes; and the requirements of some plants are much more easily supplied than those of others under such circumstances.
Considering how the supply of such plants is yearly becoming much more of a gardener's duty, it is hoped that the engravings of plants, taken from photographs, with which it is intended to illustrate and correctly show the relative size of plants and pots, will from time to time - along with cultural notes on such plants and their congeners - prove instructive to some of the readers of the 'Gardener.' The plants for illustration will be selected, not for their rarity, but for their fitness as table-plants.
The genus Dracaena furnishes some of the most elegant and useful of table-plants that can be named. D. Cooperii, fig. 1, is the very best type of the drooping varieties. It has much to recommend it; its leaves droop with a most graceful curve, and are broadly striped and laced with reddish crimson, qualities which give it an easy, graceful, and brilliant appearance on a table, especially when the service is of silver. This illustration is taken from a plant 24 inches high (not including the pot) in a 6-inch pot, and is suitable on a large table as an end plant, with epergnes dressed with flowers, and ferns between it, and the centre plant, which requires to be dissimilar in habit from the Dracaenas, and may be a Palm or a Croton. The following are also excellent dropping varieties, those marked G being suitable for greenhouse-or cold-pit culture, and can be kept in health through the winter in a temperature of 45° to 50°. Those marked *are the best of those enumerated: -
*Dracaena Cooperi. ,, draco.
* Dracaena gracilis. G * ,, Australis.
G * Dracaena indivisa. G ,, Veitchii.
Fig. 2, D. rubra, 18 inches high, not including its 4-inch pot, is one of the most handsome of the genus for table decoration, and is the most capable that I know of being grown into a large plant in proportion to the size of the pot: it may be looked to as the type of the more upright-growing sorts, among which the following are all excellent: -
* Dracaeua rubra,
* ,, ferrea variegata (stricta).
* ,, terminalis. „ gulfoylei.
* Dracaena regina.
,, nigrescens. ,, tessalata. ,, robusta.
With the exception of gulfoylei and regina, the whole of these can be purchased at very moderate prices in small pots, and all of them are very easily propagated and grown. Any who have in their possession an old or large plant of the stove varieties can, by cutting off its top in spring, and potting it in sandy soil in a 3-inch pot, and plunging it in a brisk bottom-heat, convert it into a nice plant in a short time. The lower part of the stem can be split down its centre, and each half being cut into nearly as many pieces as there are eyes or buds on them, and the pieces or buds put in pans, or singly in small pots, with a little pure sand under them, and a slight covering of sandy soil over them, plunged in bottom-heat, and kept moderately moist, will convert each bud into a nice little plant in a 3-inch pot the same season. The soil can be shaken from the roots of the old stump, and large-growing knobs or points will be found starting away from-the very base of the stem, each of which knobs, cut off and potted, and managed the same as buds from the stem, makes a nice plant the same year.
All these young plants, if necessary, shifted into 4 and 5 inch pots the following spring, grow into handsome fresh young plants, suitable for the table by the end of summer, and through the autumn and winter.
The Dracaena is not particular as to soil. It grows well in equal parts loam and leaf-mould, with a little sand mixed in, but is the better of a little turfy peat when it can be had. Young plants spoken of above do best by being partially shaken out in spring. It enables the grower to give more fresh soil in small compass; and it is a good plan to plunge the pots in a bed of sand, or, where such is not convenient, the small pot being placed in one a couple of sizes larger, and the space filled up with sand, answers the same purpose, which is to keep the balls regularly moist, and the foliage fresh and healthy, with a minimum of attention in watering.
During spring and summer they enjoy a full, warm, stove temperature and moisture, with regular syringings and spongings of the under sides of the leaves, to keep them free from red-spider, to which some of them are much subject. In winter, of course, less moisture is needed. They require to be slightly shaded from bright sunshine, but this must not be overdone, or the result will be plants too loose in growth to be suitable for the purpose here referred to. The greenhouse varieties do very well plunged outdoors in summer, and, when so treated, make the most robust and characteristic growths. For such small plants as are suitable for table, the best way will be to plunge them in a cold frame, when the lights can be put over them during boisterous and wet weather.