In April the time approaches for a quick change. We find shrubs no longer satisfy, and the early bulbs are over. We now want spring flowers, and can buy small ones ready to be planted at Covent Garden, or from any good florist near at hand. We can propagate them ourselves if we have ever so small a garden to fall back upon - if not, why, then we must buy from the shops and market-gardens. Aubrietia, Wall-flowers, Anemones, Narcissus, Myosotis, Tulips, and Iris will all be coming on now, and their flowers are charming. At this season a little fresh mould may be advisable, and a good clean up.
In May we can make up hanging baskets for the balcony. Large ones do better than small, as a good body of soil can be kept in a more equable state of moisture. Fuchsias are lovely for the basket, and so are all kinds of trailing geraniums. Moss is of course indispensable, and small pieces will soon spread. Daisies, both white and yellow, are always ready and welcome. Alpine Strawberries hanging or trailing over a basket look very pretty.
June is here before we know where we are, and the long sweet summer days. Even our miniature gardens will keep us busy. Watering, staking, thinning out, and weeding - all these things will have to be done, as well as cutting off dead leaves. If a plant looks sickly, do not let that make us too sad. We had better take it out from among its fellows and nurse it up elsewhere. In Paris, there is a hospital for invalid plants, where they are taken care of and restored to health. I am afraid no one has yet started a Flower Hospital for London.
Petunias come on later, and are splendid plants for town people; they are brilliant, and do not put themselves out because of smoke and smuts. They climb about, and fling themselves all over the place, so it is a good plan to associate them with sturdy plants for a contrast, and the filling up of gaps.
Insects must be destroyed as they appear, but soap and water will keep them from appearing at all. A daily wash is the best thing in the world for town plants, and if we cannot give it every day, we must give it as often as we can.
Watering is always a difficult matter with beginners. No exact rules can be laid down. It is not like clock-winding or anything mechanical. Plants must be watered just when they want it, and if we give it them when they don't, it makes them sick. Still, they must never be forgotten; if once allowed to get dust-dry, it is an injury from which they will not recover. We must watch them carefully, and shall thus soon learn their needs. Weather has a great deal to do with it. Wind and sun are wonderfully drying. During the heat of summer it is a good plan to water in the evening, so that the plants enjoy the moisture through the night. One axiom is drummed into the heads of all beginners, "Never water in the sunshine." But sometimes one must do it to avoid casualties, and no harm need come of it if we water the ground thoroughly without touching the leaves or flowers. Let it be a good soak. To give water in driblets is fatal. After a little water, the upper surface of the soil may cake and dry and harden, and the plant be worse off than ever, or the water may run through some dry channel in the mould and never reach the roots at all.
It is best to water pot-plants by standing them in a pail or tub, the water coming quite over the rim ; the leaves can be washed separately, and should not be left too wet, which rots them; efforts must be made to get soft water. If we really are compelled to use hard, some good may be done by standing it for a time in shallow pans, or even in the water-pots we are going to use. This improves its temperature; it will be far better for the plants than cold hard water from the tap. Baby's bath-water, when he has done with it, is excellent to water with.
Sometimes one sees the beginner put his pot-plants out in the rain, thinking it to be ever so generous to them. See that the leaves do not get all the wet, leaving none for the soil; this often happens, and the poor plants suffer thirst in the midst of plenty. We want to keep the leaves washed clean, so that the skin of the leaves can breathe (they are full of pores), but it is through their roots that plants drink in the water. Our interest in tending plants is enhanced tenfold by the study of their nature. Then common sense comes in to help us; anything like good gardening without this is nearly as impossible as it would be for doctors to cure their patients without having first been through a course of training in physiology and physics.
Plants in pots set out on the balcony do well if we stand them on a layer of coke ashes, or, indeed, any ashes that are going. Of course, we must hide them in some cunning way. Little pots of Campanulas, pink or white, drooping about are a help, and always decorative. So is Musk - delicious, delightful, shade-loving Musk I What a treat when the time for the Musk comes round ! But Musk wants a great deal of watering, and we must never water its flowers, only its leaves; and no plant scorches up so easily in a hot sun. It just wants care, and to be in a sheltered, yet not altogether sunless place.
For the autumn many people like Asters. I am not very fond of Asters personally; but they are gay, and will pass in a crowd. Small Myrtles are helpful, but our Geraniums and Petunias, Ferns and Daisies may be relied on to keep us going till flower-time is over and we begin to be thankful for the small mercies of the evergreen old Ivy, and enjoy the colours of the Virginia Creeper, more beautiful than ever when reddened by the fiery fingers of the frost.
It is hardly fair to end without a word or two about the open-air Fern-box. For beginners, and in fact for everybody, nothing requires so little trouble to cultivate as Ferns. Let us suppose a young lady's room in a northeast aspect, or north-west with only afternoon sunshine. Here is the very place for a Fern window-box. All Ferns and nothing else. Nothing but the common Harts-tongue looks lovely; so do Male Ferns and Lady Ferns growing together. Ferns want more drainage and more water than flowers, and that is all they do want. When in the autumn they die down, the old fronds must not be cut off. Let them be, and give a very little water now and again to prevent an utter dryness. In the spring they will come up again as good as ever, and would be glad of a sprinkling of fresh leaf-mould over the top just as an encouragement for the fresh growth.
When the new fronds appear we shall find them folded at the base very tight and cosy. Then, and then only, must last year's dead leaves be removed. They have protected and even nourished.
It is better not to arrange the Fern-box for a very conspicuous room; people get impatient during the resting-time of the plants, and want to turn them out, which is too bad! Nothing and nobody can be always at its best, not even human beings. The only remedy is a second box, and to put the Fern-box away to go through its dormant stage unseen. The danger of this is that it may be forgotten, like canaries are sometimes; but the Fern-box is worth trying for. In summer it is a treat, and its fresh green never looks prettier than in a case of pale blue tiles; I like this better for Ferns than the more conventional box of rustic-work.
Seeds are fascinating, but I cannot cordially recommend them for window-box use; there are too many chances of failure. But if there are any who wish to make the experiment Nasturtiums are the hardiest, and Californian Nemophila is pretty and easy to grow; but my favourite of all, and the most unfailingly good-tempered, is Virginia Stock, which does equally well in all aspects. Give it good ground and sufficient water, and its pretty, simple, many-coloured flowers will not fail to please. They always remind me of the sugar hundreds-and-thousands of our youth, one colour blending with another.
Part Of Rock-Garden, Crooks Hill Board-School, Norwich
A modern poetess has written about these flowers very prettily, and the good character she gives them is the outcome of no poetical license; it is simple truth.
"The Lily's ignorant white is glad of cheer, But these are high of courage ; glad are these, Against all changes of the changing year, Untempered sun or overshadowing trees."
"Lilac and lavender and hoar-frost white, My border waves its colour to the sun. Virginia Stocks grow low, but every one Gives all her colour to the questing light."