This section is from the book "The Florists' Manual", by William Scott. Also available from Amazon: The Florist's Manual.
Don't put off planting time. The carnation is not a tender plant; it is almost a truly hardy plant. In our latitude the end of April or very early in May is late enough. If you defer planting till end of May you have lost a month's growth. Perhaps no crop should be grown year after year for many years on the same spot. We know this is very wrong for some, but we have grown carnations three consecutive years on the same ground and have not noticed the slightest ill effects. We use a light dressing of stable manure every spring and plow deep, not less than eight inches.
We plant twelve inches between plants and fifteen inches between rows and leave out every sixth row. Be sure to plant in straight rows both ways; that allows you to run your Planet, Jr., cultivator both ways. This little cultivator saves you lots of labor and does about all the work, yet two or three times during the season you must go over them with the hand hoe and loosen up the soil close to the plants. We don't hoe primarily to kill weeds. We hoe or cultivate to keep the soil loose, and incidentally we of course destroy all the weeds. After a heavy rain when the ground is just friable seems the best time of all to hoe. Then the operation is a pleasure and it's a blessing to the plants. You can almost see them grow. Yet we do not always wait for a rain. In long dry spells we cultivate once a week.
For years I practiced and preached watering when the plants were put out. Not surface watering, but a little water in the hole around the plant and then filling up with dry soil. That is the correct way to plant anything from a geranium to an oak tree; in fact the only way. But for the past two seasons we have not done that with carnations and never will again; there is no need of it. There is plenty of moisture in the ground and rising from its depths to keep the plants in good order till we get a rain. There is another great) advantage in getting the plants out early. The weather is cool and you will catch the spring rains. I have always condemned watering during summer under any conditions and know that it is unnecessary and wrong.
A House of Carnation Cuttings.
A Bunch of White Carnations.
Stopping the plant by pinching out the leading shoots is one of the most important operations connected with carnation culture. If not stopped once before planting out they will need it very shortly afterward. By stopping the leading shoots the intent is to produce a greater number of growths. A few years ago we discontinued stopping the plants early in August and did not lift them till September. The plants would then be full of buds and we expected to go right on cutting flowers from the newly lifted plants. Such flowers as we then produced would not sell at any price today. All flower bearing shoots should be made inside, then you will get a fairly good stem and a clean flower. The plant should have its powers taxed as little as possible when undergoing the transplanting from field to bench and the buds and flowers would be the greatest hindrance to a speedy and successful start under the new conditions. The question is often asked and discussed - " Is it best to lift carnations with a ball of earth?" It is a foolish question to an old carnation grower. If your soil is of a light texture it will be impossible to lift with any ball, and most undesirable if you could. If planted in a clay soil you must wait for a rain or thoroughly soak the plants before lifting. Clay when wet is as friable as sandy loam and will drop off and leave the roots and fibers intact. We do not want to retain any of the soil that they occupied in the field, but we do want all the roots, and to preserve these we raise the plants with the aid of two digging forks, each on opposite sides of the plant and six or seven inches from the plant. It is a job you can work hard at, but it should not be done in a hurry.
At the risk of being thought egotistical I will say that we do not lose any plants through transplanting. I have time and again noticed that in houses holding about 2,500 plants we have lost none up to the following May; in others, perhaps one plant. I have read of growers who thought they had fair success if they did not lose more than ten per cent. A loss of five per cent would worry us. When we consider the crude and ungardenerlike way in which transplanting is done by men who have perhaps taken to the business after a failure at many other callings, it is no wonder that the losses are ten or even twenty per cent. The great evil in this simple but important operation is that the beginner who is without a gardener's education attempts to attain speed before he has gained the knowledge of "how to do it." I have had to listen more than once to an ex-farmer carnation grower who would inform me with pride and pleasantry that his boy could plant four carnations to my one. The best answer to this is: " You don't say so! " with pleasure and surprise on your features. When you notice in a month's time that half of those "my boy planted" are dead or dying you are reconciled to your old slow ways. I am not by any means encouraging slowness - far from it - but learn to plant and pot and shift and tie properly first, and then when performing any of these operations speed will never interfere with the quality of work.
The distance between plants on the bench will vary some with the varieties and also with the size of the plants. McGowan used to do with eight inches between the plants and ten inches between the rows. Lawson and Enchantress when fine plants should be ten inches apart and twelve inches between rows. But every one's plants are not the same size, and neither are your own. You may begin digging the best plants of a bed of a certain variety and ten inches will appear to suit them; after the best plants are dug smaller plants will come in and you can shorten up on distance by an inch or two. Your own good sense must guide you in this, only remember the plants have nearly the whole twelve months to grow and will greatly increase in size. To plant too far apart is not economical, but it is better to err in this direction than to crowd them overmuch, for that means mildew and rotting of the lower growths, a weakening of the whole plant and poor, weak flowers. I have seen them so closely packed in - because the owner had more than he needed and hated to see any perish in the field - that half the plants rotted and the rest were useless. Air and daylight should have' access to the plant on each side if you expect good flowers, and only fine flowers will return a profit nowadays.
Twenty years ago we used six inches of soil in the bench, and later five inches was found to be enough. I believe that four inches is ample to grow any carnation, and some of the finest flowers we see at exhibitions are grown in less, but I would say four inches is about right.
Carnations seems to do fairly well in a great variety of soils. Such sandy loam as they have on Long Island is undoubtedly the ideal for most of the varieties, but if properly handled a varied texture of soil suits them. Mr. W. N. Rudd, of Mt. Greenwood, 111., grows prizetakers in the fat prairie land of his state, and my neighbors, W. J. Palmer & Son, grow magnificent flowers in a stiff loam that is almost a clay. At the organization of the American Carnation Society in Philadelphia there was a discussion as to renewing the soil annually in the benches. I was surprised to hear any one say that they grew them several years in the same old soil. We had never dreamed of such a thing, but always renewed the soil every summer. Now that we have come down to only four inches of soil, I would certainly advocate a change of every particle of soil annually. Much has been written lately about semisolid beds. There are low brick walls one foot to eighteen inches high, or planks, for the sides of the bed. Although often called solid beds, no one advocates there being a solid foot of soil - only the usual four or five inches of soil and the remainder ashes, clinkers or rubble stone.
If the soil is very dry when put on the bench I prefer to give it a thorough soaking a day or two before planting. Make a wide hole with the trowel (but your hand is the best trowel) and spread the roots out in a natural way. Push in the soil on the roots, and I like to press the soil firmly around the roots, and be sure not to put the plant any deeper than it was growing in the field. Deep planting has killed lots of carnations. While you are making the hole, arranging the roots and filling in the soil with the right hand, the plant is firmly grasped, with its growth inside your fingers, by the left hand, so you can see that the plant is at the right depth, place and position, and is finished off neatly in every way. An earnest workman will do all this well and neatly much quicker than I can describe it. Some may ask what may be considered a good day's work for a man planting, supposing the plants are delivered right to his hand and other hands water them. I would be quite satisfied with 1,500 in ten hours' work. Any faster than this would raise doubts as to the quality of the work. Soil, however, makes a difference, and some varieties are easier to handle than others.