This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", 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.
We venture to discuss this matter more with a desire to conform to the Editor's wish, as expressed in the June number of the 'Gardener,' than with any expectation of being able to supplement his very excellent and generally applicable remarks on the same subject. In view of past experiences, we could hardly help smiling at some of his observations regarding the position of the stoker and ventilator when placed between a hot day, hot pipes, and a hot superintendent. True it is that few things are productive of more irritation and annoyance in a garden than the stoking and ventilating; we have always found it so, and we have had something to do in that way in different capacities. It was our lot as a learner to be under somewhat fastidious masters at different times, who in the matter of firing and ventilating exacted very scrupulous attention; and although we look back upon that period as the most actually laborious time of our career, still the schooling has proved to be of more than compensating value to us since. We fancy, if our memory was nudged in the way the Tichborne claimant's has been done of late, that we could rake up some wonderful meteorological dates of the period to which we refer.
It was a profound conviction amongst us, particularly those in the forcing departments, that we lived in a time of surpassing meteorological phenomena. The spots on the sun were nothing to the vagaries that planet was credited with: none among us doubted the influence of the planets, or at least the sun, upon the horticultural fraternity at all events - extending, indeed, in a very marked degree, even to the vocabulary. It was a settled belief, founded upon the most extended experience, that, let the weather be ever so constant and settled, the sun was sure either to show or hide his face just at dinner-time, upsetting the most careful calculations and arrangements for an hour's rest and peace. It could also be noticed, that if Sunday was intended as a day of rest, neither the sun nor the wind had been a party to the agreement, but combined once every seven days to protest against the arrangement by conducting themselves in the most erratic manner imaginable, necessitating a corresponding amount of mental and physical exercise on the part of those who were unfortunate enough to have their "Sunday in." Perhaps it is a keen day in March or April, there is a bright sun and a shrivelling wind, with a host of vagabondish-looking clouds of unequal dimensions scudding across the sky at uncertain intervals, bringing with them "rattlin' shoors" of hail or sleet.
Young Horty is about at his wits' end; he is aware that if he allows his fires to get low, and a more than usual long interval of cloud intervenes, his houses will be down to zero, and his master probably at the boiling point; or, on the other hand, that if his pipes get hot, and the "sun comes out," that he will be in a worse fix; so he has to trust to his wits and good-luck, and wish for "shut-ting-up time." Upon the whole, his position is not an enviable one, and a young man in charge of an extensive range of forcing-houses requires a good share of intelligence and decision, qualities rather uncommon, and valued accordingly; for a good man relieves his master of much responsibility, and may save him many a long journey from a remote corner of the demesne. We have come to think that soil and watering, etc, though important matters, are of secondary importance compared to the everyday results that hinge upon the attention of those in charge of the firing and ventilation. That nervous energy, so to speak, which fits a person for such a position, is exceptional, and it is difficult to get the half-experienced to realise thoroughly his responsibility.
There is the too-nervous man, who, realising fully the consequences of a bleached Pine-leaf or scorched Vines, is almost continually opening and shutting his ventilators, or going or coming between his houses and his work, the latter getting very little of his attention. Then there is the easy man: no matter how great the emergency, neither the sun nor the wind hath power over him; he moves as if "Tuning his footsteps to a march;" which shows he is in the wrong place. The medium is the best. In the matter of airing - to use the common expression - strict attention to the thermometer is the best safeguard, under ordinary circumstances; but we often wish a little discretion was used, for there are occasions on which the thermometer should not be relied upon wholly - as, for instance, when the sun shines out suddenly after a dull interval, the inmates of a hothouse feel its effects at once, as a person feels it upon his face, but the thermometer will not indicate the change of temperature for some time. We have known a batch of Pines nearly ruined for want of a little exercise of common-sense at such a juncture. Under such circumstances, air should be admitted freely at once, if shading is not at command, and the temperature regulated afterwards.
It has often occurred to us that undue scrupulousness exists about admitting front air. It is a common idea that, as heat always ascends, the top of the house is necessarily the warmest part, and that, consequently, air should be admitted there first, and in greater proportion; but there is no greater fallacy, under certain conditions. In an un-heated house, when the sun shines upon it, the air is always warmest near the apex of the roof: but in a vinery, we will say, where the heating apparatus is carried along the front of the house, that is the warmest part, and the place where air should be admitted first, and in greatest quantity. I quite expect some one will combat this idea, but let them satisfy themselves by experiment. We have long practised what we describe, being guided, of course, by the direction of the wind, and its force; but as a rule, in our high-pitched vineries and other houses, where the laps in the glass are open, we admit a limited amount of air at the tops, and afterwards regulate by the front shutters.
In our lean-to Pine-pits, with sliding lights and heated in the usual way in front, we got rid of hot-pipes on a sunny day by pulling the lights up from the front, allowing the hot current from the pipes to escape into the open air direct, instead of allowing it to pass over the plants to the back, thereby robbing the air of its moisture. Indeed, we ventilate our Pine-pits more freely at front than back, generally, and, I think I may say, with the best results. Since we practised the plan of regulating the temperature of our late vineries principally by the front ventilators, and reducing the top air to a minimum, we have had little or no scorching, so called, of the foliage, to which such Vines as the Alicant are very subject, particularly at the points of the young shoots; and which, we are quite convinced, is caused by cold draughts more than anything else.
As regards stoking, the first thing we ought to realise, but which we are very apt to lose sight of - so accustomed are we to rely upon hot-water pipes or flues - is, that the fire is only a necessary evil, to be dispensed with on all possible occasions. We cannot, however, do altogether without it, and have to rely upon it almost wholly at times. Hence stoking, both on the score of economy and success, is a question, we think, of more importance than boilers; for the best boiler, in the hands of an ignorant fireman, may only be an instrument of waste. The coal bill is always a heavy item of the expenditure, and it is to a great extent under the control of the fireman. Some men will keep up temperature with nearly a third less fuel than others, and with far less labour to themselves, simply by exercising a little intelligence and method; and studying the weather, so far as it relates to their operations. It is a common practice with the inexperienced, in their nervous anxiety to get up heat, to heap on fuel as fast as the fire subsides, forgetting that by keeping the fire continually green they are only defeating their object, and consuming coal to no purpose.
The first object of the stoker should be to acquaint himself thoroughly with the construction of his boiler, and the manner in which it is set. The next thing is to keep it clean. Every morning the furnace should be cleaned out thoroughly: a little timely attention in this way will save much after trouble and annoyance. In starting a fire, take a little pains to do it effectively. Much depends on a few minutes, sometimes, in such cases. Do not add too much fuel at first, but when the fire is going briskly, and it is desired to get up heat quickly, it should be pushed abroad with the fire-hoe, under the surface of the boiler, a little more fuel added, and a good draught allowed until the pipes are as hot as required, when the damper should be pushed in to check the draught, and no more fuel need be added until the fire is pretty well burned down. Unless when needful to "bank up" for long intervals, nothing is gained by cramming the furnace full of fuel: a moderate fire, in a thorough state of ignition, is the most effective at all times, and also the most economical.
When the weather is steady, and the days bright, as they sometimes are in April and May, no one need fear about a considerably low temperature in the morning in their forcing-houses. It can be amply made up during the day by economising sun-heat; and no doubt the plants are greatly refreshed by the rest at night and relief from fire-heat, and nothing so soon arrests the progress of red-spider.
We are not in love with the plan of having one man as fireman for the whole establishment. It is the most satisfactory plan to allow every man to fire his own houses; he is more likely than any one else to take an interest in the matter, and it is one of the things every young man should learn to understand perfectly. Some superintendents insist - perhaps without expecting so much - upon the thermometer being kept to a degree at the most arduous season, but he does well who fires to within two or three degrees of the mark. Still, we have known young men, who, for the sake of leisure to follow their studies in the winter evenings, could, by dint of patient experiment, and attention to the out-door thermometer, and the weather, etc, maintain a long range of forcing-houses almost to a degree for long intervals, night after night, and who had accustomed themselves to rely confidently upon their calculations, which were very rarely far from the mark. I state this merely as a hint to those who have such duties to attend to after work hours. We all know that temperatures must be attended to, and young men in charge of hothouses can alleviate their labours by a little careful study and attention in the way I have indicated, and promote the interests of all concerned.