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.
In treating of the above subject, my object is not so much to treat on the arrangement of what are known as the Marchian stands, as used for the dinner and exhibition tables, but simply to state what I have done in this way for myself, guided solely by my own notions of taste, and the materials I had at hand for use.
Last season, the stands we used for the decoration of the dinner-table here were in constant use for something like eight months, and to keep these trim and nice is not only a heavy tax on one's time, but also on one's resources; however, having given entire satisfaction, I consider I was amply repaid for my trouble. As the provision for table decorations is becoming more and more a task allotted to the gardener in an establishment, I venture to detail what I have done, and the agents I have used, for the sake of those who may have a similar work set them, and would be glad to receive some suggestions in regard to the matter.
I will first observe that Ferns and Mosses are among the most useful things for the decoration of the table, and even such a common thing as the Male Fern (Lastrea Filix-mas), which may be found in the hedgerows in almost every parish, is of great value for forming a fringe to the dish of a stand or centre piece. Equally valuable is the native Welsh Polypody (Polypodium vulgare Cambricum), which makes a nice change with the Male Fern, the handsome fimbriated edging to the fronds adding to its worth. It is by no means so common as the Male Fern. That charming greenhouse Moss, Selaginella denticulata, is another useful thing for the purpose. I use plants taken out of small pots to fill the base of a stand, and fill up between the balls with silver-sand, using about four plants for the purpose; and with the sand I mingle some powdered charcoal to neutralise the effect of any offensive smell that will sometimes arise after the plants have been placed in the sand several days. After a sprinkling has been given to settle the sand about the roots of the Moss, the branches should be pegged down neatly with small hair-pins. If watered about once a-week, the Selaginella will grow very nicely, and keep beautifully green for two or three months together.
Scarlet Pelargoniums and other flowers can be stuck in the sand by their stalks to give a finish to it. That popular form of the Maidenhair Fern, Adian-tum cuneatum - perhaps one of the most lovely of the Ferns, notwithstanding that it is common, and always a great favourite with the ladies - is also of great value, and makes a beautiful fringe for the top dish of a design, it being so light and graceful. Some five or six years ago, Mr Charles Turner of Slough was a competitor at one of the Crystal Palace exhibitions with a vase of Roses, and by way of giving a finish to his vase, he used fronds of the Maidenhair Fern among his Roses, which was a great improvement on the formality of a bunch of this favourite flower, but the vase was disqualified by the judges in consequence. Now, it is the custom for the schedule of prizes to state Ferns can be used, and no disqualification follows as a consequence; and the same thing also holds good at South Kensington, as well as at Brighton.
There are certain plants that are very useful for twisting round the upright stem of a stand used for the decoration of the dinner-table; and branches of these should be stuck in the sand, and then be neatly and elegantly twisted round the stem; and a few ties should be placed up the stem at intervals, to keep it in its place - fine thread or wire can be used. The Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera aureo-reticulata, is one of the best things for the purpose; so is Dioscorea battatas. The common Ivies I find to be too heavy. Tradescantia zebrina is a nice thing to hang over the top dish, especially if some cuttings are placed in a 32-sized pot in some light sandy soil, and allowed to hang over the sides of the pots till rooted, and then shaken from the soil and laid round the dish, with a little silver-sand about the roots. The heads of the plants should hang over the sides, and they will grow freely, and last for six months if required. Of pendulous growth, and variegated foliage, the effect is charming and effective. The silvery-leaved Cen-taureas candidissima and argentea vera make a nice change, and the leaves can be used to make a layer inside the Ferns in the bottom dish.
Besides the scarlet-flowering Pelargoniums, the white-flowering ones, like Madame Vaucher, as well as the sweet-scented kinds for the perfume the leaves yield, are also very desirable. The flowers of the scarlet and yellow Nasturtiums last a long time in the wet sand. Verbenas make a nice change in their season, and especially Roses; the flowers of these should be cut young in the morning, when the dew is on them.
Such stands as these are never complete without light-green foliage of some sort or other, such as the different kinds of ornamental grasses in their season, and the tops of some of the meadow-grasses in the autumn. In the same way sprigs of Asparagus from the kitchen-garden are very useful; so is the foliage of Tamarix Gallica, a hardy deciduous shrub; also Humea elegans, and suchlike. Variegated plants work in well; the Iresine with its handsome mottled red leaves keeps well in the sand, so do Coleuses and variegated Pelargoniums; of the latter, such as Mrs Pollock, and the white Ivy-leaved kind l'Elegante. Then there are blooms of Gladioli, Asters, Chrysanthemums, and many others, with stiff stalks to support them. In a general way, many of the flowers will last only one day; and I change the whole of them three or four times a-week, but make a rule of looking the stands over every other morning. The sand should not be so saturated as that the flower-stems will not stand erect in it, or they are apt to fall out when the stands are removed from the table.
William Plester. Elsenham Hall Gardens.