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December 28, 2011

Growing like it's 1855 - Inspiration from the past for a new gardening year


A WARDIAN CASE IS DIFFERENT THAN A 

At the end of each year, I treat myself to a small selection of rare gardening books. Like many gardeners, I prefer to choose my own books, as many of you would understand, I am not the easiest person to buy a plant book for!.   This year, I've found 5 very nice vintage gardening books, all printed between 1802 and 1908. , and most focus on the subject of growing potted plants indoors, either under glass in some of the country's first greenhouses, or in conservatories. I find the subject of 18th century greenhouses appealing for many obvious reasons, but mainly, as a New Englander with a glass house, living just outside of Boston ( where many of these books were published), I can relate to this desire  people had for 'keeping a glass house'  in the middle of winter where one can grow tender plants, trees and shrubs collected from around the world. 




In the 1800's, a glass structure in which to grow plants was a luxury item indeed, yet they were far more common than today. Most every estate or large home had some sort of conservatory or greenhouse, but they also very necessary for florists, farmers and produce stores, for providing a constant supply of fresh flowers. veggies and fruit for the markets. Otherwise, the greater population would need to survive on winter storage vegetables like roots, turnips, cabbages, carrots and potatoes.

 Oranges could be shipped via trains, and Pine Apples by ship, but  fresh flowers had to be locally grown, and some crops such as oranges could be grown for both their blossoms ( for winter weddings) and for fruit. If one wanted any sort of fresh green vegetable, it had to be forced or 'forwarded' in a hot bed,or grown under glass in a greenhouse. A New England farm always kept both cold frames and hot beds ( lined with fresh manure to heat the roots), where they grew both late and early crops of many vegetables, but with those with horticultural interests, such methods were also used for forcing rhubarbs, growing violets, and forwarding Tuber Roses, a favorite flower of the time around the Civil War. If one wanted orchids, and if one had deep pockets, a hot house was needed, or a 'stove house'. where temperatures were kept as high as 110 deg. F in the day, for growing equatorial plants. These were rare, and only the very wealthy could afford their maintenance. A proper greenhouse would be kept at 40-50 degrees ( like mine) and many plants could be kept throughout the long, snowy winter with a heated brick flue and a fire.

Most of all, these books are showing me just how sophisticated people with the plants they attempted to grow indoors.  Many chapters deal with plant windows, forcing on a windowsill, and the culture of Wardian Cases ( precursor to the modern terrarium). Plants for homes could be found via mail catalogs and in the large east coast cities around the mid 1800's. These books are so inspiring, that I think I will refocus much of my blogging from growing rare plants, to how people grew plants 250 years ago. 

 I will be sharing with you such things as how to grow crops of cut-flower Tuberoses in a method I never saw before, how to master Sea Kale shoots, how to create organic coldframes with 'paper glass' created from rag paper and boiled linseed oil, how to force rhubarb ( one day in 1851, a cart in Boston with fresh, forced, blanched rhubarb in January sold more then 2 tons worth!), and many other lost or forgotten methods that gardeners with a curious mind, will appreciate. 

Plants were often kept in 17th and 18th century homes in the north, and many thrived where they could not today, since nights became cold due to the fact that all homes were heated by fires. The selection and variety of plants available was far more extensive than I even imagined. Even last night, I spent 3 hours on Google trying to find sources for many of the plants, which are available, but not being grown by anyone doing mailorder.  It is ironic that even in our modern world of air freight, that the 1850 gardener - with his world of steam ships and trains actually had access to far more plant material, than a modern greenhouse enthusiast does today.

 One book, has sample ads from Boston nurserymen and seed catalogs, some offering as many as 1300 varieties of just named forms of Anemone and Ranunculus which could be imported from Holland.  Frittilaria, Cholchicum, Clivia nobilis, Ixia, and many Australian shrubs were also offered as 'in-stock items.  Again, I remind you - this was before the Civil War! Maybe I am just naive, but I was shocked to imagine such material even being introduced at that time to the American gardener. Even more impressive is the diversity of species suggested for greenhouse culture in these books (many are still hard-to-find rare bulbs which continue today to be elusive in the trade like Lachenalia, Ornithogalum, Massonia, Brunsvigia, Boophane and Nerine). Sadly, these were all wild collected, a practice not encouraged today. Yet seeds are also listed.

I also learnt than books were expensive then, since many of these listed at $20 to $60 dollars in 1850! Obviously, only the rich could afford bound books, but a few did list our at $6. - $10., still, quite costly and not that far off from today's prices for printed media.

Terrariums can vary in price today, from a choice  vintage hand-blown dome in a Guy Wolff pot (left) to a home made recycled soda bottle from Walmart, cut and placed over a begonia cutting. They both work!
  Many of those late 18th century and early nineteenth century greenhouse shrubs arrived on whaling and merchant ships who often had natural history collectors on board as their routes traversed the unexplored regions of Australia, the south seas, Chile, Argentina and the cape of South Africa.  I am about to invest in a year full of new ventures with plants, and one that you will be able to share with me as I experiment with recreating old and forgotten methods of propagation, the culture of Tube Roses in pots and trellis, on forcing Rhubarb and Sea Kale, on building forcing frames from paper coated in boiled linseed oil, on hot beds, cold frames, blanching cardoons, and training topiaries in the old style. 

There are cultural specifics to practice - training pelargonium’s for exhibition and parlor display, preparing the perfect bed of Tigridia, growing hybrid gladiolus in pots, forwarding cucumbers under hand glasses, and sourcing many tender shrubs and trees for conservatory culture which I cannot find in my catalog and on-line sources.
A PAGE FROM EDWARD SPRAGUE RAND JR.s FLOWERS FOR THE PARLOR & GARDEN. A CHAPTER ON WARDIAN CASES, FLORENCE FLASKS and the WALTONIAN CASE.  ALL METHODS OF GROWING PLANTS INDOORS USED DURING THE 1800's. I CAN"T WAIT TO START RECREATING THESE! 
A YOUNG NEPENTHES ( TROPICAL PITCHER PLANT) GROWING UNDER A GLASS DOME  ABOVE OUR KITCHEN SINK.
I am learning how fresh flowers, particularly camellias, can be brought into the home from the cold greenhouse, and arranged under glass to extend their lives. One book suggests that all proper Wardian cases should have bowls of camellias kept in it, where they could last up to 2 weeks.


MANY CHAPTERS ABOUT WINDOW GARDENING ARE ENTERTAINING, SINCE THEY OFTEN TALK ABOUT THE POISONOUS GASSES AND FUME THAT FRAGRANT FLOWERS EMIT AT NIGHT, WARNING THE READER TO NOT PLACE THEM IN THE BED ROOM.

I AM SURPRISED BY THE SELECTION OF SOUTH AFRICAN CAPE BULBS THAT WERE AVAILABLE IN THE EARLY 1800'a, A FAR BETTER SELECTION THAT IS EVEN AVAILABLE TODAY.










Fruits and vegetables aside, the flowering conservatory shrubs are what are capturing my attention at the moment. Many are not available from my source lists, so please help me if you can. Logee’s Greenhouses is my primary source, and since their greenhouses are from that era, they have many of the plants which were so popular then for winter gardens under glass, and for winter florist work such as Buddleia asiatica, jasmines, violets etc. But there are those shrubs that I do not have a source for, which were very common as exhibition plants like Hovea species, Kennedia, Eriostemon, Chorizema, and Epacris. I did find a hybrid Epacris last year at a greenhouse (similar to a heath), but these are now on my must-get list.



6 comments :

  1. I enjoyed this historical information very much. Thank you for taking the time to share excerpts from old literature in depth with us.

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  2. I've had my eye on a Wardian style terrarium at my fathers place for some time now, over Christmas I lucked out and he had gifted it to me. I also have a fascination in antique plant books, the information is somewhat timeless and I always feel like although we advance, we also forget. I really enjoyed this read.

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  3. Oh what a wonderful find. I love this post and the enthusiasm you have. Makes my heart happy to see your zest for life. I will be following.

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  4. Wow! What a great idea. Your new books look so cool. I'm really going to have to look into this also.. LOL.. I have read your blog for a while... Maybe its the warm winter..or just plain winter. But your posts have just made me so happy I have to comment! (plant dork in action alert!LOL)Thank you! Its going to be a great gardening year!! :) -Camille

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  5. I'm so glad you found these books to inspire you. GWP is taking an interesting direction indeed for 2012! The variety of plant material available back then is amazing. Annies Annual's has carried chorizema and may carry it again this year: http://anniesannuals.com/plt_lst/lists/general/lst.gen.asp?prodid=2927

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  6. Wardian cases aren't exactly gone ;-) And they're much closer to current terrariums than people often expect. What you found about access to plants is pretty remarkable, though I think it's probably true that we now have access to more seeds than ever before, even if it's less likely for us to be able to buy obscure mature plants via mail order =)

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