Since Londoners have learned that life without scent and colour is not worth living, England's capital has become a City of Flowers. It is not only Covent Garden and the great floral shops of the West End that blaze with blossoms; the same idea has spread into every little outlying suburb, wherein no self-respecting greengrocer, however small his frontage, would fail to fill a shelf or two with fresh-cut flowers several times a week. Here every careful housewife holds her Saturday marketing incomplete till she has bought the bunch of sweetness that is destined to adorn the Sunday sitting-room or grace the midday meal. Cold winds of wintry spring may blow, but, wrapped in folds of pale green tissue (which sets them off amazingly), bright yellow Daffodils, purple Violets, white Narcissus, or branches of the almond-sweet Mimosa, are carried through the streets by thousands.
All this is delightful; but cut flowers, lovely and decorative as they are, can never satisfy the deeper necessities of the soul. We admire them, we enjoy them, but it can hardly be said we love them; they are too strange to us, like new friends that we have not had time to cultivate, but must let go ere we know them.
As we agreed just now, really to enjoy a flower we must have grown it.
In London and all large towns gardening has its trials. Many will not attempt the task, and rely wholly on the cut flowers of the florist or the daintily filled pots and baskets he sells us, the blossoms in which last hardly longer than those we buy by handfuls. What are the inhabitants of flats and tall town tenements to do when they long for the joys of a little gardening - real gardening - and have not so much as a bit of a back-yard to call their own? Well, even in towns and cities, where there is a will there is a way. One or two alternatives are open to us; one is the Window-box, another is the Roof-garden, and there is the Balcony.
The window-box is both the easiest and the most general, but, common as are these town adornments, it is a matter of fact that very little "gardening" is done in them. For the most part the man in the street gets as much aesthetic enjoyment out of a window-box as its owner, and often, except in the matter of payment, has about as much to do with it. The lordly mansions, in front of which are displayed the most beautiful colour-schemes during the fashionable season, are often closed at other periods of the year, while their owners are away enjoying flowers in distant places. It is of the window-gardening of that far larger class that lives in London all the year round we would say a word or two. Window-gardening might become ten times more interesting than it is now if people only woke up to a sense of its possibilities.
Too frequently the window-boxes of the million follow the fashions that are set them by the "ton," and come out radiant only with the dawn of summer. True, in some cases, the baldness of winter and early spring is mitigated by the planting of a few small shrubs, green or variegated; but not infrequently so little interest is taken in them that the poor things are allowed to wither on their stems, either parched with thirst or frozen with cold. One would almost prefer the sight of the clean, quite empty flower-box, which does, at any rate, give a sense of rest.
Can nothing better than this be done? Why should not everybody who owns a window-box make and enjoy a spring garden in it? Nothing is easier, and it may be done in an endless variety of ways. To begin with, a whole chapter could be written about Bulbs for the window-box. These friendly little plantlets, if we invite them, will keep us bright for the first three months or any year.
Gold, white, and blue, - these are the colours we will choose, and we will start with a very cheap and simple scheme. Nothing is better for planting at the same time (quite early in the autumn) than Winter Aconites, Snowdrops, and blue Scillas. These give us brilliant colours in quick succession, and, what is more, they overlap each other, and the grass that belongs to each plant helps to make a background for the rest. In planting Snowdrops I would counsel everybody to put in two kinds, not one double and one single (to my mind a Snowdrop doubled is a Snowdrop spoiled). What we like is to place a long-stalked and a short-stalked flowerlet side by side, so as to give the same appearance of lightness we aim at in the arrangement of cut flowers in the house. For a long-stalked Snowdrop, Mr. Barr's Galanthus Whittalli could not be improved upon. It never looks prettier than when rising from a bed of its lowlier sisters, just the little common kind we are so familiar with in London shops and baskets, where, for some inscrutable reason, they are generally bound up stiffly with twigs or box, which do their best to overpower the fresh sweet scent that properly belongs to every Snowdrop.
If our window-box is in a sunny position, these little flowers of early spring will peep up at us even during the frosts of January. The golden Aconite cares nothing for the cold of a London winter; he is used to Himalayan snows, and shows his schoolboy shining face and frilled green collar so early that he invariably takes us by surprise, though we have been looking for him. Next come the flake-white Snowdrops, "offering their frail cup of three leaves to the cold sun;" lastly the Scillas, brightly, beautifully blue.
To set these flowers off to the best advantage one must have given them a dainty bed on which to lie. When the Bulbs are planted some tufts of hardy, free-growing, flowering Moss should be put in at the same time. The common Iceland Moss does very well; it stands any amount of cold, and spreads out thickly as the days grow light. Every scrap of soil is hidden, and the flower-spikes look doubly pretty pushing through the green. If Ivy-trails are wanted, this is easily managed, but great care has to be taken with Ivy. Once started, it grows so strongly, and may injure other things. Crocuses of every hue blend well with any of the flowers just mentioned, and bloom about the same time. Another window-scheme is charming, but will be at its best a little later, through the months of April and of May. Instead of Moss (or as well as Moss, if we like both) we can make our carpet this time of Forget-me-not, through which white Cottage Tulips grow delightfully, and so do white or pale pink Hyacinths. Thus grown the Hyacinth loses the look of stiffness, which is its only fault. White Arabis is another grounding flower, which sets off scarlet Tulips (Van Thol's we choose by preference) to perfection. The double Arabis is even prettier than the single, and very nearly as hardy.
Either with or without the addition of bulbs, a very inexpensive yet pleasing combination for the window-box, that will be a joy through the most inclement May, is London Pride and Forgetme-not growing side by side. The tender pinks and blues blend charmingly, and when gathered last a long time in water. Miss Jekyll says one of her favourite combinations is London pride and St. Bruno's Lilies. We have not tried this for boxes, but can well believe it; London Pride is such a sympathetic little flower, and sets off everything it accompanies.
We have sometimes let the delicious Poet's Narcissus (Pheasant's-eye) spring up amid these charming flowers of later spring; tall, fair, and gracious, they give an added charm. If a tone of pink is wanted, not a better spring flower can be chosen than Silene, sometimes better known as the Campion or Catchfly. It can be bought in clumps at any flower-market.
If we like, it is quite possible to grow the very early bulbs along with all these flowers: they do not interfere with each other in the least. Every one takes his turn to "show off" like the ballet-dancers of grand opera, and does his part to keep a window-box bright with blossoms right on from January to the end of May.
For the encouragement of those who have to grow their spring flowers in window-boxes instead of in the open, I may quote some wise words written by one who knows.
"The window-gardener," he says, "equally with the possessor of extensive flower-borders, may enjoy the early spring flowers, and in almost as great variety as his more fortunate neighbours. Bulbous plants will grow equally well in well-drained boxes, filled with soil that is fairly good, as in the open border. They may, indeed, grow better, for window-boxes are invariably sheltered to a great extent, and bulbs in the border have sometimes much to contend with - insufficient drainage, insect enemies, inclement weather, to which they are fully exposed, etc."
Every one can vary his flower-scheme as he likes, season by season. Anemones, some Irises, Jonquils, and Daffodils, must never be forgotten, nor yet the simple Primrose, which looks so fair near beds of heavenly blue (Grape-hyacinth, Forget-me-not, and Bluebell, are contemporaries), and we should start our window-garden as soon as we come back from seaside holidays, say in the quiet days of late September.
Through the long winter nothing gives a more delightful sense of restful expectation than a box or border we have filled with bulbs and covered comfortably with some simple greenery. It secures for us a taste of the real pleasures of gardening. Our part is done; Nature, even in towns, will do the rest.
"The bulbs lie close In the earth's warm keeping; But when Spring wakes, That now is sleeping. Crocus and daffodil, Hyacinth and jonquil, Their dreams unfold In blue and gold, For lovers reaping."