Gardening Articles


Experience only can teach the beginner just how to manage his vegetables and plants in this new winter garden. But at the outset he must remember one thing: If it is true that he has control of his miniature world of growing things

it is also true that he can leave nothing, as he does with his outside garden, to the treatment of nature. The control is in his hands--the warmth, the moisture, the fresh air, the soil--none can be left to chance; he must think of them all. And before going into details, which might at first be confusing, let us take up the elements of this little world over which we are to reign, and try to elucidate first a few general rules to guide us. The house, after countless little delays and unforeseen problems conquered by personal interest and ingenuity, is at last ready, and the bare board benches look ugly enough in the bright, hot sunlight. How are they to be converted into a small Garden of Eden, when all outdoors is chained in the silent desolation of drifted snow? Here is a new task. No longer Nature's assistant, the gardener has been given entire management of this new sort of garden. It is almost a factory, where he must take his raw materials--earth, water, heat, light, and the wonderful thread of life, and mold these all into a hundred marvelous forms of beauty and utility. Something of art, something of science, something of business, must all be brought to his interesting work. Let us begin then at the bottom. What is the best kind of dirt to use? It should be friable, so that it will not bake and cake in the pots; rich, that the little plants may readily find ample nourishment; porous, that water may be soaked up readily, and any surplus drained off freely. A soil answering all these requirements is made as follows: cut from an old ditch or fence-side, thick sods, and stack them with the grass sides together to rot. This heap should be forked over several times, when it has begun to decompose. In dry weather, if within reach of the hose, a good soaking occasionally will help the process along. The sods should be cut during spring or summer. To this pile of sod, when well rotted (or at time of using), add one-third in bulk of thoroughly rotted manure--cow and horse mixed, and a year old, if it can be obtained--and mix thoroughly. If the soil is clayey or heavy, add enough coarse sand and make it fine and friable, or use a larger proportion of the manure. Leaf-mould, from the woods, will also be good to lighten it with. This one mixture will do for all your potting. Keep enough of it under cover, or where it will not freeze, to last you during the winter and early spring. Store some of it in old barrels, or in boxes under the greenhouse bench, if there is not a more convenient place. For very small pots, run it through a half-inch sieve. For the larger sizes, three inches and up, this will not be necessary--just be sure the ingredients are well mixed. Proper temperature is more likely to be the beginner's stumbling block than any other one thing. Different plants, of course, require different treatment in this respect; and just as your corn and beans will not come up if planted too early in the spring, or carrot or pansy seed in the heat of July, so the temperature in which a coleus will thrive would be fatal to the success of verbenas or lettuce under glass. It will often pay, where a variety of things are to be grown in the small greenhouse, to have a glass partition separating it into two sections, one of which may be kept, either by additional piping or less ventilation, several degrees warmer than the other. So, while a general collection of many plants can be grown successfully in the same temperature, it is foolish to try everything. Only actual experiment can show the operator just what he can and cannot do with his small house. Even where no glass partition is used, there will probably be some variation in temperature in different parts of the house, and this condition may be turned to advantage. The beginner, however, is more likely to keep his house too hot than too cool. He may seem at first to be getting a fine quick growth, and then wonders why things begin to be lanky, and yellow, forgetting that his plants can get no air to breathe, except what he is careful enough to give to them. For the majority of those plants which the beginner is likely to try--geraniums, petunias, begonias, fuchsias, abutilon, heliotrope, ferns, etc., a night temperature of 45 to 55 degrees, with 10 to 20 degrees higher during the day, will keep them in good growing condition during the winter, providing they are neglected in no other respect. So long as they are not chilled, they cannot have too much fresh air during sunny days. Make it your aim to keep the temperature as steady as possible--the damage done to plants is as often the result of sudden changes in temperature as of too high or too low a temperature. If it is easy to overdo in the matter of temperature, it is even more so in watering. A soil such as described above, when watered, will absorb the water rapidly, and leave none of it standing upon the surface of the pots after a few moments. Practice, and practice only, can teach just when the soil has been sufficiently saturated. It should be watered until wet clear through, but never until it becomes muddy. And when watered it should not be watered again until dry--not baked and hard, but a condition indicated by a whitening of the surface, and the rapidity with which it will again soak up water, a condition hard to describe exactly, but at once recognizable after a little practice. During the dull winter months, it will be sufficient for most plants in the greenhouse to receive water twice a week, or even less often, but on the coming of warm spring days, more frequently, until care is needed daily. There are some old fogy ideas about soft and tepid water, which may help confuse the beginner: they accomplish nothing more. Recent experiments, made by one of the State experiment stations, have confirmed the experience of practical florists, that the temperature of water used, even to ice water, has almost absolutely no effect--the reason being that the water applied changes to the temperature of the soil almost before it can reach the roots of the plant at all. And hard and soft, spring and cistern water, have likewise been used without difference in results. The main thing is to attend to your watering regularly, never letting the plants get dried out or baked. Not the least important of the "arts" which the worker under glass has to acquire is that of potting. From the time the cuttings in the sand bench are rooted, until the plants are ready to go outdoors in the spring, they have to be potted and repotted. The operation is a very simple one when once acquired. To begin with the cutting: Take a two-inch pot (a few of the geranium cuttings may require a 2-1/2 inch pot), fill it level with the sifted soil and with the forefinger make a hole large enough to receive the roots of the cutting and half its length, without bending the roots up. With the thumbs press down the dirt firmly on either side of the cutting, and give the pot a clean, short rap, either with the hand or by striking its bottom against the bench (which should be about waist-high) to firm and level the earth in it. With a little practice this operation becomes a very easy and quick one. Place the pots side by side and give a thorough watering. Keep in a shaded place, or shade with newspapers, for four or six days, and as soon as growth begins, move the pots apart, to allow the free circulation of air before the plants crowd. The time for repotting in a larger size pot is shown by the condition of the roots; they should have formed a network about the side of the pot, but not have remained there long enough to become tough or hard. They should still be white "working" roots. To repot, remove the ball of earth from the old pot, by inverting, striking the rim of the pot against the edge of the bench (a light tap should be sufficient), taking care to have the index and middle finger on either side of the plant stem, to hold it readily. Put in the bottom of the new pot sufficient earth to bring the top of the ball of roots, when placed upon it, a little below the rim of the pot. Hold this ball firmly in the center of the new pot, and fill in the space about it with fresh earth, packing it in firmly, using either the fingers or a bit of wood of convenient size. As a usual thing it is best when shifting to use a pot only one size larger. For pots above four inches in diameter, provide drainage by "crocking." This is accomplished by putting irregular shaped bits of stone, charcoal, cinders or pieces of broken pots in the bottom, being careful not to cover or plug up the hole. If the pots are placed directly on the bottom of the bench--board, slate, tile or whatever it is--they will dry out so quickly that it is next to impossible to keep them properly watered. To overcome this difficulty, an inch or two of sand, or two or three inches of earth, is placed on the benches. When placing the pots upon this covering, work them down into it, just a little, instead of setting them loosely on top of it. There are several insect pests which are likely to prove quite troublesome if given a start and the proper conditions in which to develop--crowded plants, too much heat, lack of ventilation, too little moisture. Prevention is the best cure. Burn tobacco stems or tobacco dust, used according to directions, every week (or oftener if required), and see that no bugs appear. One or two of the strongest brands of tobacco dust for sprinkling are also used successfully applied directly to the insects on the plants, but my experience with most of these has proved them next to worthless. (See also Chapter XVII.) It is not nearly so interesting to read about the various greenhouse operations as it is to do them. It is work of an entrancing nature, and no one who had never taken a little slip of some new or rare plant and nursed it through the cutting stage and watched its growth till the first bud opened, can have an idea of the pleasure to be had. In the next chapter I shall attempt to explain just how to handle some of the most satisfactory flowers and vegetables, but the inexperienced owner of a small greenhouse who wishes to make rapid progress should practice with every plant and seed that comes his, or her, way, until all the ordinary operations have become as easy as falling off a street car with him. Mistakes will be made, and disappointments occur, of course, but only through these can skill and efficiency be obtained.

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