"The summer approaching with richness - And the infinite separate houses."
The spring months over, and our early blossom faded, how joyfully one hails the crowd of summer flowers, that appear as if by magic, begging us to buy them. Market-carts and barrows filled with "bedders" meet us at every turn, and their wafted sweetness in square and street is intoxicating. We must clutch these old joys and hold them. How now about the window-box?
To be practical, two-courses are open to us. Bulbs are not at all fond of being moved; they like to rest in peace while their grass grows long and straggly, to feed the bulblets underground; but this does not look pretty, so if we have any place where we can store the spring flower-box, we may remove it bodily, and leave the rest to Nature. If not, we had much better clear it all out ruthlessly, and start afresh.
One mistake that should be guarded against is that of filling the summer window-box too soon. People are in such a hurry; they want to smarten up their houses with growing summer flowers, even before the end of May. To put it on the lowest ground, this is waste of money; but worse, it is cruelty. We might as well stand our darling occupants of the warm nursery outside their open windows, with nothing on but pinafores! All these summer flowers have been grown in a hot place. At all times it is well to know the previous history of each plant we buy, and something of its pedigree. Plants have their pasts as well as people, and they should be considered. We want those that have been brought up hardily, not forced.
In early summer the multitude of floral beauties before us to choose from is bewildering, yet nearly every one fixes his affections on the same flowers year by year, and no doubt will continue to do so, for they never fail to please. London would not be itself without its windows framed with clusters of white Marguerites and bright Geraniums (generally pink), with a neat edging of Lobelia. There will be slight variations in the kind and colour of the flowers, and sometimes trailing Ivy-leafed Geraniums will add a note of grace. For a lovely pink nothing surpasses the Geraniums "Christine Nielson" or "Olive Carr." But variety is the spice of life. Why cannot some of us, for a change, choose white Geraniums - "Queen of Whites," for instance - and fill the spaces in between with Petunias, single and double? Petunias are now brought to the greatest perfection, and may be had in splendid colours, shading from palest pink to the deepest crimson, and the fringed blossoms are exquisite. The freedom of their growth is a welcome set-off to the stately deportment of Geranium "Queens." And we might have yellow Marguerites, with Marigolds and Nasturtiums deepening to brown and orange, Fuchsias with Heliotrope (only we must keep the Heliotrope out of a draught), or gold and spotted Calceolarias mingled with white Daisies. But is it of any use to advise Calceolarias? They are so unpopular nowadays, though some of them are not so bad, even if they do remind a little of the gaping, wide-mouthed toad.
One would gladly see more Musk used; it is delicious billowing over pots of dark red Roses. Some say Carnations do well in window-boxes. We have never tried them. They are capricious always and anywhere.
Walking or driving about the streets and squares of the West End of London on a June day, when all the window-boxes are at their gayest, it is amusing to notice how some localities favour certain flowers. At Queen's Gate for several seasons past there has been what shopkeepers call "a great feeling" for white Marguerites and Genista. Here, again, I use shopkeeper language. "Genista" is London shop for the almond-scented, yellow-flowered Citisus which, though really a conservatory plant, deigns to brighten the window-boxes of London facades, reminding delightfully of the golden gorse-blossoms that have the same sweet smell, and are blooming at the same moment about the heaths and waste-lands of the country. Genista must have the sunny side of the street; we should bear that in mind. Some Clubs, too, adopt certain flowers and colours, remaining very constant to their specialities. It would be interesting to reckon up the number of Daisies that bud and blow in town during the "season." Never need Londoners quit the region of bricks and mortar to count the "daisies of the dappled field;" there are nearly as many of them to be seen in town. The Daisy is such a human flower.
Nettles, they say, are never met with but near the haunts of man, and we are really very much obliged to them, for boiled Nettle is nearly as good as Spinach, and Daisies are just as friendly. I have seen them on the golf-links of Norfolk in chill December, their fringed and yellow eyes gazing benevolently at the golfers. Wordsworth knew all about the Daisy.
"Methinks that there abides in thee Some concord with humanity Given to no other flower I see The forest through."
One very charming scheme that has been adopted with great success for the sunny side of the street is to have the whole house painted white, and to fill every box and balcony with the lovely tendrils of Asparagus Sprengeri, and nothing else. This ripples over most luxuriantly; to look at it makes one feel cool on the hottest day. After two hours' eye-strain at the Royal Academy no sight could be more refreshing. The Sprengeri is often used for pendant baskets, which it furnishes to perfection.
Overlooking The Town
However handsome may be the receptacle for our flowers, no arrangement is really so pretty as that which gives them trailing blossoms and greenery to hang and cluster over the hard edge. Campanulas are always ready to do this gracious task, and can be had either in pink or white to suit every requirement.
If we live in a flat that has a good many windows and aspects, we may enjoy a great number of different growing plants. Before the kitchen-window I should have a box for parsley and a herb or two. They make for grace as well as use. Some herbs grow very prettily, and their aromatic, refreshing scent (so unaccustomed in a town drawing-room) will please more than that of the costliest exotic. I have sometimes amused myself by making a nosegay out of nothing but herbs. In a sick-room it is priceless. Wormwood - the herb that in France is used for making absinthe - is a very graceful grower, of pale grey green not unlike Southernwood or Old-Man, but finer, and it has a more delicate and subtle scent. Another herb, Sweet Cicely, is often mistaken for a fern, though it is softer and bears flowers. Mint, Balm, Sage, and Rue make a pleasing bunch, and these herbs will grow anywhere; they are not afraid of London smoke. Parsley is more difficult to manage, but is just as tricky in the garden as in the box. It is perhaps as well to buy this with our cabbages and cauliflowers.
Some of the other herbs are really not procurable in towns, however gladly we would pay their price, so it is worth while trying to grow them for ourselves, and it can be done.
All town gardeners must make up their mind to contend with difficulties. The worst of them are smoke and smuts. Smoke, however, is not nearly so bad in summer as in winter, nor are there then so many flying children of the soot. We must wash and sponge and syringe, and we must use soft water. Oh, the magic of soft water in the plant-world! but how often the dry and panting flowers sigh for it in vain. We forget or omit to store the water heaven sends us, though nothing is simpler to arrange than a pipe leading from the gutter on the roof down to the ground. Instead of feeding our plants with rainwater we turn the nearest tap, and torment them with hard water from the main. This is what Londoners do, anyway; I hope it is not the same in other towns. On the whole, growing plants give very little trouble, and make slight demands upon our time, but, like children, they are ruined by alternations of petting and neglect; the little care we give them must be constant, and, as usual, experience is the best teacher. "The watched pot never boils," they say, and picnic experiences have taught us to believe the proverb ; but it does not apply to plants and flowers, which always do better for being noticed.
It has come to be a family fiction, in which we more than half believe, that flowers will not thrive unless they are watched. Looking at them seems to make them grow, which of course is only another way of saying that they pay for close attention, and the stitch in time that saves.
At Exeter, already one of the most beautifully kept of English towns, the window-box bids fair to become a striking feature. An enthusiast in horticulture, anxious to improve its southern entrance, is offering prizes for the best window-sill gardening in that locality. Three months are allowed for exhibition, and consolation prizes give a chance to all. The idea is a good one, and almost sure to be imitated in other places. I have often wished that every nursery-window in London might have its window-box for simple flowers. A child's delight in the first shoot above the ground is a pretty thing to see, and after that there is the miracle of the bud and bloom. How much more meaning has the pretty "Seed Song" to a town child who has himself with his own hands sowed the little seedlets and watched the wonder of their birth in his very own window-box! I borrow two half verses of it, for the benefit of those to whom it is unfamiliar.
"Little brown seed, oh! little brown brother, Are you awake in the dark? Here we lie cosily, close to each other: - Hark to the song of the lark!
"Little brown seed, oh! little brown brother, What kind of flower will you be? I'll be a Poppy - all white like my mother. Do be a poppy like me."