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.
The culture of the Violet is exceedingly simple. In April the side runners should be allowed to grow, and to encourage them to root freely they should have light rich soil sifted among them. In May a piece of ground in a north or west border, or in a partially-shaded situation, should be chosen, and well dressed with any light rich manure. A good dressing of charred material - such as burnt vegetable-refuse, charcoal-dust, or wood-ashes - should also be added if it could be obtained, as it materially encourages the growth of a healthy, dark-green foliage, and a profusion of fine large flowers. The runners should be carefully lifted as soon as they are well rooted, and be planted in prepared beds a foot apart. They should not be allowed to suffer from want of water, and all runners or side-shoots should be pinched off as soon as they appear. By the end of September they will be found strong plants, and will lift with good balls, if required to bloom elsewhere. I think they bloom earlier and more freely if allowed to remain undisturbed.
The little bouquets of Violets which in the spring months are generally sold by the flower-girls in the central streets of London are the produce of many acres of land at Mitcham and its neighbourhood. A short visit to Mr Steedman's Violet farm gives an insight to its workings. There are 16 acres of land under Violet culture. The two varieties of this flower principally grown here are the Russian and the Giant. The first named is darker in colour, the latter is the most fragrant. The picking is done by boys and girls, who have a tin can suspended by a strap over the shoulder on one side, and a bunch of short strips of bass on the other. When twenty-five Violets are plucked, they are tied together with a strip of bass, and placed in the can. Another "hand" is employed to pick leaves only. In about the centre of the little farm there is a shed or barn. Here the picked Violets are brought and placed in heaps, as are also the leaves; but the latter are all thrown into a water-vat and swilled, for the purpose of removing earthy rain-splashes. In the barn from ten to twenty pair of nimble fingers are ready to make up the bouquets as soon as the flowers are supplied; this is done by tying two of the quarter hundred bunches of Violets together with two or three leaves outside them.
This done, they are then packed in symmetrical rings in a small basket or skip. About three o'clock p.m. the work is done, and from twenty to eighty skips are put into the van for market. The quantity varies considerably, according to the weather and season.
Mr Steedman is a true philanthropist and trader, and is as well known in Covent Garden at six o'clock in the morning in March and the beginning of April, as Rothschild is on the Exchange at three o'clock in the afternoon. Many a poor flower-girl, without a penny, gets from him fifty bunches of Violets on credit, and at a price something less than half that the public pay for them retail. The girls frequently increase their profits by dividing every bunch of fifty they receive into two of twenty-five; but this is done only very early in the year, or when the flowers are scarce.
There are large Violet farms in the South of France (that of M. l'Hermine in particular), of more than 100 acres, near Nice. Last year the season there was so unfavourable that the Paris market could not be supplied from its customary source. In England, on the contrary, the weather was remarkably mild; and Violets were so abundant at Mitcham that they were forwarded by the night French mail, and sold freely in the Paris morning market.
The Violets are cultivated at Mitcham in single roots, and are not allowed to run together. Nothing deteriorates these flowers more than when they become bedded together. They then grow leaves instead of blossoms. The roots require dividing every other year at least.
I am referring to these only to condemn the practice of planting them near the roots of any valuable fruit-trees, as I know of no more "hungry-rooted" plant. The roots spread rapidly, and frequently to a very great depth, and quickly absorb all the fertilising properties of the soil, to the obvious detriment of the only legitimate occupants. By all means grow as many Violets as possible, especially if there be ladies to please; but, if possible, keep them clear of valuable fruit-trees. After all, a large frame full of Marie Louise will yield as many large beautifully-scented double flowers as will be required.
Although I have by no means exhausted the list of plants that may be grown on south borders, what I have already written will occupy as much space as our editor will feel justified in allowing.