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.
I have no doubt the readers of the 'Gardener,' like those of every other horticultural periodical, consider they have had quite enough of the subjects I have chosen for this and a few other papers of recent years. Be that as it may, I think there is a good deal to be said on the subjects in hand yet, and I mean to contribute my quota, and I hope others will do the same.
Nearly all gardeners of any extent of experience must have observed that certain vineries become suddenly famous for their crops of Grapes, and as suddenly lose the reputation thus obtained. That there is some sufficient cause or causes for this sudden wax and wane of fruit-fulness no sane man will deny, any more than he will the importance of a discovery of a remedy for the latter; and in order to arrive at some safe conclusions on the subject, I will proceed to make a diagnosis of a set of "worn-out vines," and of the border they are planted in - I cannot say growing in, for the active roots have left it years ago. What, then, do I find? small, thin, flaccid foliage, the lateral growths getting annually smaller in wood and larger in pith; the footstalks of the bunches long and slender ; the bunches composed one half of matured, the other of shanked berries; the Vines very subject to attacks of red-spider or any other living pest that afflicts the Vine. If the atmosphere is kept moist, they throw out a great many air-roots. Altogether they are in a most unsatisfactory condition. Then what of the border? Dig down a foot deep in it and you find no young active roots. The soil is more of the consistency of putty than anything else.
It was rich when compounded, and is so much the worse now. In the process of its removal you come upon a fine large bare root, running as direct across it to the gravel-walk beyond as the electric cable does across the Atlantic, and you are provoked to find that though there is not a living rootlet in the border that has been prepared with such care, there are abundance branching in all directions among the broken bricks, stones, ashes, or gravel, as the case may be, that form the walk. My readers will probably remark, Then why not make the whole border of brickbats, stones, or gravel? I reply, better it were so than as matters but too frequently are found; at the same time I hold that a border properly made of good loam, with the addition of a few bones, a little horse-manure, and, if the soil is heavy, some brick rubbish or burnt clay, or both, is far more likely to give good results than bricks, stones, or ashes. The reasons why the routs branch in all directions in the walk are that undoubted law of nature which provides many roots for a plant on poor soil as compared with those on rich, and the sweeter state - to use a technical term - of the material of which the walk is framed, as compared with the border, kept so by the air in the interstices amongst the stones.
Others of the roots, as I have often found, have gone down into the miserably poor sand or gravel of the subsoil. They are anywhere, in fact, but where they were intended to be. Your neighbour plants a vinery, and he means to prevent the evil complained of. He bricks up the arches of his front wall to compel the roots to live at home till they occupy the inside border well, when he means to let them out; but they have their revenge, for they go first to the bricks, then trace them down to feel if they can get out underneath them. They fail, but they are away a yard from the surface, and when let out, commence their march across the border at such a depth as deprives them of the genial influences of heat and air. So much for what we learn from an examination of the old Vines and their border.
I will now, founding on much experience, suggest what the Vines may have been like when planted. They were probably what are styled in the advertisements of the present day, "fine strong planting canes," and to the comparatively inexperienced they appeared all they were represented, but a critical examination proved that they were as pithy as a rush. They had no well-plumped firm eyes, and when turned out of their pots, it was discovered that they were grown in rich soil, half dung in fact, that they had been grown in bottom-heat, and that many of the roots formed under such circumstances had decayed when exposed to a degree of cold that would do no injury to a properly-grown Vine. They have been raised from eyes in small pots, where they remained till their tap-roots had made several journeys round the inside of the pot, when they were transferred to a 9 or 10 inch pot, to finish their growth and make several more coils round it. Another aspect of their treatment in early youth was that they were grown as near each other in a close moist atmosphere as beans in a field, their foliage never getting properly exposed to light and air.
I by no means blame nurserymen for growing them thus, while the vine-buying public expect to get "fine strong planting canes for 3s. 6d., and fine fruiting ditto at 5s." The thing is simply impossible at the present rate of labour and other appliances, including the space the Vines would require to grow them properly. This is a real case of sinking the ship to save a pennyworth of tar.
I may here remark that I observe another delusion springing up at the present day about Vines for planting. I refer to advertisements setting forth that the subscribers can supply young Vines grown without the aid of artificial heat - as if this were likely to add to their value, when the reverse is the case. No Vine should be planted that is more than a year old from an eye, and to get such well grown and ripened in the climate of Britain requires more or less fire-heat. Such being the Vines, let us turn them out of their pots and proceed to plant them. The roots that have survived are twisted and entangled in all directions, and by the time the leading roots are disengaged from the ball, there are no small laterals left on them; but they are a good length, and when spread out reach a long way across the border. While the stored-up sap in the Vine and roots lasts, progress in growth is made for a short time; and after a halt, young roots start from the points of the old extended roots, and, if the border has all been made up at once, get rapidly on with their journey across it.
Here I must leave them in the mean time, for I find I have occupied as much space as I have a right to expect on this occasion. In my next I will suggest remedies for the evils I have attempted to depict.
Wm. Thomson. Dalkeith Park.