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.
This is a subject we have never seen touched in the ' Gardener.' There must be few gardeners who are not called on sometimes to add this to their list of duties. It is one of those which most effectually test the gardener's taste, ingenuity, and expertness in handling flowers, a sleight-of-hand which is a good deal the result of experience, but one of those things in which practice can never take the place of natural facility. Some men with infinite labour will send a whole bushel of flowers, leaves, and materials hors de combat with very unsatisfactory results, while another with a handful mil produce a graceful effect with no particular effort.
The mode and materials for table decoration are endless, the former depending a good deal on the size of the table for the evening, the style and magnitude of the room, and accessories, such as chandeliers, the nature of the plate, and the style of the ornaments to be used for the time. For instance, combinations of groups of plants may have to be used, or a lighter style of arrangement with cut flowers, or both combined. Sometimes a massive style might be most effective, in which vases of fruit might be introduced in company with plants bearing fruit; in fact, the modes of arrangement which one's ingenuity might suggest are endless.
Much has been said in praise of the light and elegant flower-stands of Marsh for table decoration, and they are worthy of all praise in their way; but we cannot allow them a monopoly of style; vary the mode of filling them as one likes, even they will soon become monotonous. The choice of materials for this purpose is now almost inexhaustible. There is no lack of variety at all seasons of the year; almost all flowers can be worked in forming combinations; even the single blooms of the Hollyhock we have used with much effect in forming chains, wreaths, and fringes; but certain colours of flowers are much more effective than others with candle-light. Of plants those of a graceful habit or outline - for instance, the Pandanus and Chinese Primula - are the most useful. Stiff plants, such as Camellias or Azaleas, are seldom admissible. We have sometimes had the common Pine with ripe fruit worked into a design, but it is stiff and ungainly; the variegated variety, on account of its pretty stripes, is useful. Some things have long been stereotyped as table-plants, and are made to do duty everywhere and on all occasions - such as the various coloured Dracaenas, Begonias, Marantas, and other things in the coloured way.
They are like the old stock scarlet Geraniums in the flower-garden, which everybody has, and everybody must use, and which for this reason have long become stale. They, however, recommend themselves as being showy, easily stuck in a vase and transported to the table; and lo! the table is decorated. Simple materials are, as a rule, the most useful; to stick a rare and expensive plant on the table, simply because it is new and rare, is not decoration. We sometimes see, at flower-shows, collections of hand and table bouquets for competition; the taste or no taste or motive of the various makers can usually be seen at a glance. Here is one crammed with some rare Orchids and the very newest Zonal Geraniums, and eked out with the newest arrivals from Mexico or the Brazils: the maker evidently thought the judges could not well get over that; but, after all, it is but a bundle of flowers. There is another of Rose-buds, Lily of the Valley, Lilac or Deutzia, and suchlike, but elegantly put together, and a bouquet. The judges of the one such will, according to a golden rule in judging, give the prize to the producer, not to the production; so it must be in the decoration of the table.
Simple materials, skilfully arranged, producing an elegant whole, are much more likely to please the eye of taste, and through it reflect credit on the artist, than sticking on rare or valuable plants to concentrate the attention on their individual selves. We believe, however, that there are but few gardeners who will not pronounce table decoration a nuisance, especially in winter, if there be a run of it for a month or two on end, and a change in demand every night. The damage to plants and the waste of flowers are alone sufficient to disgust one, not to speak of time absorbed and the monopoly of thought; but the thing must be done, and therefore anticipated, and when extensive practice in this department, room and table decoration, is exercised, much hospital accommodation must also be provided.
Of the materials useful for the purpose we shall mention some things we grow in quantity, more especially for winter use. Foremost we may mention the various and best sorts of Chinese Primula, well grown and flowered in small pots; their forms and colours look beautiful with candle-light, and either cut or turned out of the pot, they will arrange with anything. Plants of all sizes of Centaurea Ragusina also work as well, and are always elegant in whatever combination - as can only be said of white; their outline is also graceful. Well-fruited plants of Solanum capsicastrum of various sizes, also the tall varieties of S. pseudo-capsicum, are most useful. Almost all sorts of Ferns are indispensable subjects, especially Adiantums, batches of which are easily grown of any size. In summer the fronds of the common Shield Fern and Lady Fern are difficult to supersede for many purposes - as, for instance, where a fringe is wanted round the edge of a vase or dish against the table-cloth. The common toothed Lycopod is ever in demand, and can be grown in small pots or shallow boxes; or, if convenient, meadows of it can be grown in the conservatory, on the tops of Orange-tufas; indeed, anywhere indoors.
Epiphyllums of all shapes and sizes are also stock plants when in bloom, Standards, Pyramids, and Dwarfs, to adopt the language of the Rose catalogue; Centradenias, some of the Acacias, young Palms and Cordylines, and various Dracaenas, reds and greens, especially the narrow-leaved one of the latter. Bambusa variegata is very graceful for cutting, or as small plants, and easily grown. Creeping or trailing plants are indispensable for table decoration, for hanging round vases, high ornaments, trailing among branches of epergnes or chandeliers, or twining up the slender glass stems of the Marsh stands. Of these there are various Passifloras, especially the common one, Tacsonias, Lygodium scandens, the variegated Japanese Honeysuckle, the variegated Cobea scandens, sprays of miniature Ivy, all of which are easy of culture. Of fruit-bearing plants there are plenty of graceful habit, such as small Orange-trees, the various Solanums. Small plants of Ardisia crenulata, though stiff, are admissible on account of the brilliancy of their fruits. Rivinas are also useful in this section, and even the several varieties of Capsicum are enlisted in the service.
In this section, however, the crowning plant is neat-grown Vines in pot trained in various ways; but our favourite form is the umbrella shape, on frames made for the purpose, in pairs of equal height, the umbrella covered with foliage, and a fringe of foliage spreading all round the edge, and some six small bunches more or less hanging down underneath. These plants may be any size, but small specimens from 2 to 3 feet in height in 9-inch pots are a useful size; they may also be grown as bush or pyramids, and two or three years in the same pots with rich top-dressings. We have known a whole Vine cut from the rafter with the fruit hanging on it, and erected for the occasion down the middle of the table; but this is a piece of extravagance not to be attempted except by desire on a very special occasion. We have also known an old unpruned Vine reserved for this purpose, the foliage and fruit tied on when wanted; but this is a clumsy alternative which we do not recommend, having never tried the plan; indeed, all deception, in whatever shape, is reprehensible. In the way of fruit for decoration, the old Queen Anne's Pocket Melon is very pretty.
Many more things yet occur to our mind, and we might easily go over a fresh list, but those mentioned are simple, and within the reach of most people.
We would proceed to give some directions as to the mode of arrangement, which, however, is not such an easy matter, but shall endeavour in another paper to make a few general remarks about details. The shape and size of the table for the evening must be ascertained from our coadjutor, the butler; also the number and position of the articles of ornament, in plate or otherwise; also chandeliers, if not suspended; the number of the dishes of dessert must also be ascertained through our other friend and auxiliary, the housekeeper, and also their position. These primary points decided, we proceed to reconnoitre the position and form a plan in the mind's eye; the rest is detail and easy - that is, if the sleight-of-hand mentioned above is in command, without which we will not guarantee an elegant result. The Squire's Gardener.