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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Garden Gossip

by S. Armitt.
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 382-386

"May is one of the best months for seed sowing, and it is a very fascinating occupation; there is the neat packet of tiny seed, the rich, dark newly-prepared earth ready waiting for it, and one has a vision of hundreds of beautiful flowering plants to come from the union of the two..."

No. 5.

The few weeks before and after the beginning of May are full of occupation, thought and project for the gardener. Upon what is done at this time depends the beauty of late summer and autumn. It is too late to touch the plants that flower in May and June, they will all have been fixed in their places in October or February. This is the great time for the bedder-out, when the hundreds or thousands of plants that are many of them as exactly the same in shape, colour and size as living begins can be brought to be, are massed together in the open air, as they have been massed together the winter through in stove or pit or frame. There is little of this to be done by the gardener who has neither heat nor cold frame; only the great dahlia tubers, that may have escaped the frost in a cellar or an outhouse, have to be divided and planted. My preference for time of doing this is one of the last days of April, when they have a good chance, if soil and situation suit, of overtaking those whose growth has been promoted in March by heat or shelter. For two years some of my dahlias that have been overlooked in the autumn taking up have lived and thriven even more than the others. These great plants take up much room and they increase to a troublesome extent; one does not desire so many of the same sort and one must either give away or throw away, and the latter action is one of the most difficult of feats to some people. A friend of mine, with a beautiful and very extensive garden, will have none of these same dahlias at all, he thinks they are such bulky and unwieldy masses that the flowers they produce do not compensate for their presence, and I am not sure that he is not right. Their merit is perhaps that they are little trouble. Once put rightly in the ground and firmly staked, there is nothing to be done but to gather their flowers, and if they are started early, they produce for a long season, flowering continually till the frost comes. The staking is, however, by no means easy; the plants grow to such size, and have such a mass of foliage, that the wind and the rain have more power than the firmest stakes. Unless the position is particularly sheltered, one if not two storms are inevitable, when disaster is certain; either the stakes go, or the stems break, or the ties give way. One may enter one's garden after a stormy night to find a wreck that looks hopeless, and one has no idea till one tries how a few hours' work can clear it all up--not to the same state as before, but still to something quite tolerable in comparison with the devastation. To make up for these drawbacks the dahlia achieves great length of flowering time; July, August, September, and perhaps the whole of October, may produce an uninterrupted succession of flowers. The little pom-poms of recent development are desirable additions to a collection of dahlias, by reason of the great number of flowers borne at once on smaller and less foliaged plants. I have found the cactus dahlias irresistible; but it is as cut rather than as garden flowers that they excel, and they are not very profuse bloomers.

May is one of the best months for seed sowing, and it is a very fascinating occupation; there is the neat packet of tiny seed, the rich, dark newly-prepared earth ready waiting for it, and one has a vision of hundreds of beautiful flowering plants to come from the union of the two; it is an irresistible temptation to try again, to rearrange conditions, to avoid past mistakes, and the hope becomes almost certainty that success will come as it never has come hitherto. I have wasted and wasted money upon seeds. I have firmly resolved to have nothing more to do with seeds, to buy a few plants rather than many seeds; but each year the resolve is evaded on some pretext or another. One year it was the Penny Seed Packet Company's list that prevailed over judgment. There were so many seeds therein that one had never before thought of growing. I was going to establish by its means a wonderful number of perennials that I had never seen in gardens yet, and so cheap, only a penny, that one's list grew longer and longer, and of the five shillings' worth that I invested in I have not now one plant to show. It was a bad seed year, truly, but it often is that, and the cheapest seeds in my hands were certainly the dearest I had known. There is an amazing uncertainty about seeds. Carnations often do well from seed; my first experiences was a packet that cost three-pence, and was the most wonderful success; there were reared from it about two dozen plants of beautiful varieties that bloomed profusely; it was a delightful sensation to have produced, one's self almost, such things of beauty. It was immediately necessary to continue and to do even better still, with really good seed this time; and the end of that resolve was a half-crown packet from which germinated two feeble plants that never bloomed at all! So it seemed best to return to moderate-priced seed, and of the sorts that one finds from trial that one can grow. There are some sorts of seeds that I have sown again and again and yet again, and they have never germinated. Gentiana acaulis, commonly called Gentianella, is one of them. I used, in another place, to grow from seed wallflowers, and had each spring a fine set of profusely flowering plants. Here I have tried almost every year and failed each time; the conclusion seems inevitable that wallflowers do not like this climate and cannot thrive in it. There are many failures in seed growing, but now and then one gets great success. I have a beautiful border of Aubretia, the result of seed of moderate price sown on the spot where it has now for four years profusely flowered. When the flowering is over, I cut off the seed pods to keep the border low and tidy. I wonder if the earliest formed seed is by this time ripe, and if, tumbling about amid the old plants, germinates and so renews the plants continually. If this is not so, the old plants will soon have lost their youthful flowering vigour and need replenishing. There are many seeds that germinate well and then succumb to some natural enemy; there is the damping off of seedlings of all sorts by a fungus that creeps through damp soil close to the surface; fresh air and sunlight is its cure. There are the seeds that are beloved of slugs and snails; in the garden where these animals abound it is in vain to sow Scalet Lychnis or Gypsophila, they come up and they are eaten off in spite of all precautions.

After spring rain I go about my plants with a spoon-like ladle and a big pot gathering slugs; what to do with them when gathered used to be a difficulty, now I tip them into a swift river current and they go I know not where; I hope and believe that they are drowned at once. I can think of no more merciful death for them, and death it has to be for one or the other, the slug or the plant. The beautiful blue Scillas seed themselves here profusely, and the slugs eat the seedlings entire, if permitted; of the adult plant they confine their ravages to the opening flowers. Primula flowers they take too. There is an early flowering Doronicum that is not worth having here because the slugs climb its long flower-stems and devour every blossom as it opens: the later blooming plant of the same name has a very hairy stem that baffles them and is safe. I think it must be scent that guides these creatures so far up a flower stem, ten or twelve inches long. It is not only flowers and young plants that slugs devour; decaying leaves of bulbous plants are their favourite food and may be used as traps in which to take them.

It has been said that it is because the too tidy gardener leaves them none of their natural food, decaying vegetable matter, that slugs take to a flower diet; of seedlings and small plants it is ever the weakly ones they select first of all, and it may well be that their small faculties detect the signs of weakliness and decay before any such are visible to our larger perceptions. Grant Allen says that it is at the end of April that the big black slug, Arion ater, begins to traverse the garden in bands, seeking what he may devour, but his smaller relatives of the Limax genus are to be found much earlier and sustain themselves on the corollas of choice primroses all through a mild winter: they may be found hidden under the lowest leaves and in open spaces about the roots. The snails that live in shells of various shapes and patterns are as inimical to delicate plants as the apparently shell-less slugs. I say apparently because most of them have not entirely dispensed with a shell, but wear it concealed internally, to protect their most vital organs. There are people who make pets of snails and say they eat very little, keeping them tethered by fine cotton that they may not wander and get lost. Between these two extremes, those who destroy and those who cherish, are the more numerous class who, disliking extreme measures, try to protect their treasured plants by various measures.

Soot is sprinkled over and near the plant or a circle of salt is laid thereabout. There is one wonderful garden where almost every small treasure had a circle of perforated zinc; when I first went there, many zinc circlets were plantless, but whether the plants had been eaten by slugs or died from other causes was not revealed. However that might be, I thought to try this plan too, and protected in this manner a scarlet larkspur, Delphinium nudicaule, well-known to be favourite slug food; success did not attend this experiment, the zinc circlet got raised by means unknown, the slugs entered and destroyed. I tried once more upon a new plant and with the same result. Soot and salt answer the purpose of protection as long only as the weather is dry; the first heavy shower of rain washes them into the soil and leaves the surface an open road for the nightly enemy.

There are favourable spots in many a garden where annuals will sown themselves year after year without troubling the gardener. Limnanthes Douglasi is one of them, pretty yellow flowers with white centers; it flowers early in summer, runs to seed, and dies away, but the seeds are left on or in the ground and germinate at once, surviving the winter as small plants, and so ready to flower early. Another one is a lavender-flowered Nemophilia, with dark spotted petals; this does not germinate the year of flowering, but lies in the ground all winter as seed; hence its flowers come later. Forget-me-nots come well from seed; there is the new favourite, Myosotis dissitiflora, that has not thriven everywhere, but Myosotis alpestris is always satisfactory and easy to rear, the seeds sown in one May flowering the next.

Perhaps I have said too much of failures, they are so apt to rankle in the mind; the successes we enjoy for years. Mine have chiefly been pansies and auriculas. The pansies from the best seed do not seem to be perennial, they bloom their life away in a season; violas are more lasting, and nothing is more lovely than the large white ones if they can be saved from the slugs, and that is a larger "if" than everyone can get over. Auriculas are beyond praise in beauty and endurance, for with division they are almost everlasting.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July, 2010