January 30, 2017

My Gardener's Monthly for January

In the greenhouse, the camellias are well budded, and nearly bursting with bloom.

As I lose myself in a number of 19th century gardening books and magazines, it strikes me how similar the content in this gardening blog is to these now defunct publications, (I hope that this isn't some big hint that I have been overlooking!). Thanks to Google books many of these journals have now been scanned are are searchable providing hundreds of articles about everything from the perils of steam heating greenhouses and stoves to how to collect and preserve plant specimens while journeying on a steamship. 

It's the start of the camellia season here in Massachusetts, at least, under glass. These winter-blooming shrubs and trees have provided color and flowers to florists and home greenhouses for over 175 years.

Often found bound in hardcover form at rare book sellers and in a few libraries of horticultural societies, these publications provide endless hours of learning - (or, at least they do for me). Which is funny, because I despise most things about the Victorian Era (The styles, architecture, fashion and the artwork, yet I can't help but find the science - the botany, bird study and anything that has to do with plant display, training, culture and the greenhouses and conservatories that go along with it - endlessly fascinating. This was the time of discovery, and I suppose it might seem odd for someone living in the 21st century to consider, in so many ways, these Victorians had a better connection with the natural world - in particular, with plants.

In late January, the greenhouse probably looks very much like one that John Quincy Adams might have visited, or John James Audubon.  Old books and magazines provide facts help use see who somethings today look exactly as they did centuries ago.

Since I have a greenhouse at home, just west of Boston, many of these articles speak about topics I am quite familiar with, while others provide hints to what I might want to try and grow, or, to what I could only dream of growing (unless I suddenly discovered that I am the sole, living relative of some West African missionary  just died and had to accept 20 million into my bank account.). Those extra 300 foot long greenhouses for the culture of apricots, nectarines, grapes and pineapples probably will never see reality.

Many people of means in the mid 1800's kept glasshouses not just for rare plants being brought in on ships, but in which to raise food that otherwise would never be found at a market. These Limequats would not have been available then but certainly many citrus would have been grown on private estates in New England.

Still, I can find solace in what I can grow. Lemons, kumquats, and lots of camellias - all planted in the ground, or in large tubs that can be brought outdoors for the summer - not unlike what is often suggested in many of these magazines. If anything, I am shocked by the choices that had - even in 1835, making my collection of shrubs and plants under glass practically ordinary.

Oxalis livida may not have been grown in the Victorian era, but any bulbous oxalis species like these were -brought back by collectors and plant explorers to the port cities, and the set in displays at horticultural societies and in private greenhouse collections. I love the foliage on this on in particular. Lots of bright sun and single pane glass is the trick.

The great Boston philanthropist (and, OK, slave trader and fur-shipping magnate) Col. T.H. Perkins, (who was the man who also founded the Perkins School for the Blind), wrote about his plant collecting back in 1835. An issue of the Horticultural Register and Gardener's Magazine from hat year mentioned that his display at a meeting at newly founded Massachusetts Horticultural Society included many rare plants from his glasshouse in Brookline. It included large tubs of Camellias, clerodendron, correa two species of cyclamen and Primula sinensis.

Lachenalia aloides from South Africa would have been a common greenhouse winter-flowering bulb back in 1865, yet today, it remains only on the fringe, traded between enthusiasts and available from a handful of nurseries. These are growing well, but are just beginning to show flower buds.

Undoubtedly it was much easier for a shipping magnate to acquire plants from overseas (perhaps much of his collecting from his middle age?) but the same issue of the Horticultural Register also presents articles on how to collect and bring plants back from ports such as South Africa, Hawaii and China.

A more unusal Lachenalia, L. pustulata has pustules on the leaf surface, making a unique if not slightly gross display. No worries, it's the flowers you will want - Purple and bluish, and yes - in the late 1800's, most every greenhouse grew this if one had a collection.

Seeds of course, presented the best potential for success in these time just after the invention of the Wardian Case, but catalogs at the end of each issue list hundreds of sources for rare bulbs, many of which anyone today would have to work hard to find. In many ways, our selections today are narrow and more focused on -easy-to-grow, mass-market driven by sales, with the unusual or hard-to-grow selections discarded, leaving only the high performers.

This X Amarcrinum is a modern cross between the genera Amaryllis and Crinum. As an ornamental garden plant in the south, it does well for me in a large clay pot if kept cold in the greenhouse. In this semi-dormant state, all I need to do is to keep the floral stems removed, as I am here, and slightly on the dry side until spring arrives. Then, it will be moved outdoors again for the summer where it will bloom late in the year.

Great for beginners, but for any of us who might like to try something different, or unusual, or botanically important - our work is much harder - maybe even more difficult than if we lived in 1835, for if I wanted to find seedlings of a lachenalia species, I perhaps would have only 2 sources for seed, and one source for bulbs in the entire world, while in 1835, I could have taken a carriage to Boston where a number of nursery stock houses could have found me everything from Nerine sarniensis imported from Guernsey to Babiana bulbs from the Cape of Good Hope.

'Winter Flame', on the the newer named crosses of the South African erica species once so common in cold greenhouses here in the North East, it putting on a bit of a show for us.

Not to wax too much on the romantic notions of Victorian horticulture, it doesn't escape me that many of these same ships held slaves, fur, opium (medical) and most anything that could sell for a decent price, or that the only customer who could have afforded the greenhouse to raise such plants would have been somewhere in the upper-strata of the 1% (I guess, in someways, things really haven't changed, now have they?).

Like my bearded 19th century roll models -- I too am attracted to unusual plants. Aren't we all?  Here are a couple in the greenhouse right now, hopefully they will bloom soon.
The plant at the top of the photo is a very rare bulb from Bolivia - Stenomesson pearcei - It may bloom now after a 3 month dry period, so I relocated it to a high bench where I can water it again. The  weeping evergreen plant in the foreground is an Agepetes species, somewhat related to the genus Vaccinium. (Blueberry). It should present red, tubular blossoms, hopefully soon.

The main thing that I take away from reading these 100 plus year old journals is the plant selections themselves, and although I must mention this in most every post, it seems that every weekend I gasp at what I find that was available, if not commonly available. Sometimes the names are wrong, but usually I can research through the messy nomenclature (the taxonomic hurdle can be tedious at times, because the Latin name have changed sometime more than once since 1835), but mostly I end up with a notebook full of notes which just sets me off on a virtual journey. Today, I searched for Paeonia moutan var. banksii, (probably P. suffruticosa), which -  yes, grown as a greenhouse plant in Boston and exhibited at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in bloom during a snowstorm in 1838.). Kind of amazing, right?

Maybe I should write a journal, month-by-month books, in that way, I could include useful tips like this: "In early February, prune your apple trees and espalier." That's on my to-do list!

Mostly though, I feel a little better about my content.  Look, I sometime feel bad that my topics aren't exactly like those found on other gardening blogs. I do joke about it sometime, and even flirt with 'top 1'posts and using key words like "life hack' and "Awesome DIY Seed Bombs", but I just can't do it. Not that they don't work, or aren't fun - I understand that value that manure tea might offer a beginner gardener, or how a child might really just like to raise something fun like sunflowers - hey - we all started that way.

What I am trying to say is that generally speaking, when asked to describe my blog, I tend to edit the definition towards whomever is asking me. "Oh, it looks at old fashioned flowers" or, "I focus on heirloom vegetables and sometimes fruit", while others may describe my posts as "he writes about his greenhouse and the amazing plants in it.". When really, it's all of that, and perhaps more.

Winter wouldn't be winter if it wasn't for the small narcissus species from the Atlas mountains of Morocco. Narcissus romieuxii.

What I am realizing now is this: Growing with Plants is very much like 'A Gardener's Monthly (1880) or almost identical to the content offering the 1835 -1850 issues of The Horticultural Register and Gardener's Magazine. And you know what? I am completely OK with that.

At least three species of Cyclamen where being grown in the 1850's in New England, not yet considered hardy enough to try outdoors, seed-raised corms were often common enough in estate greenhouses for gardeners to exhibit them at private displays at the newly formed Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Look - It's late January, and now I know that just as in the heavy, 1885 snowy winter in Boston that I too have my pots of Babiana looking vibrant and green, budded and ready for a sunny day to bloom. I know that my camellias which are well-budded and just relocated to a warmer part of the glasshouse, will be opening for the upcoming Massachusetts Camellia Society Show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in early March, and I definitely know that although my Nerine are late in setting seed, that my lemons and Sparmania are right schedule along with my Correa, Cyclamen species and my Tropaeolum tricolor, which is twining all over a vintage balloon trellis almost exactly like the engraving in that same issue from 175 ago.

My collection of Cyclamen varies between 8 to 12 species and subspecies, and although some would be hardy outdoors, I prefer to keep them on a back sand plunge bench where I can appreciate their lovely foliage, and be able to collect seed before the ants steal them on me! (they do that!).

It's just.....cool, I guess. At least to me, and perhaps to some of you who might care about such things. Granted, most people (my work colleagues, brothers and even my non-plant-geek friends) probably wouldn't care all that much, and I suppose, why should they. After all, the only Patriots they care about are in some football game next weekend.

Asian shrubs, such as this Sarcococca hookeriana  are somewhat tender unless you live in the Pacific NW or in the Carolina's. They were common cold greenhouse plants. This is so fragrant, that just a bit of a twig brought indoors can scent an entire room

The highly fragrant blossoms of Sarcococca hookeriana are somewhat inconspicuous, but you really don't need to see them (I mean, last Saturday it took me 20 minutes to find what I was smelling in the greenhouse -it was driving me nuts until I found this plant!).

Some of the citrus pots are so large, that I use the space on top of the soil to house smaller pots of herbs like this thyme. It's somewhat winter hardy for us, but it grows much better in a cold greenhouse. It also allows me to collect fresh lemon thyme and culinary thyme for the kitchen, and provides material for cutting which I root in February for the summer garden.

Lastly, some real horticultural advice here (in the spirit of these old journals - maybe I should write more of these at the end of each random post, or just write lots of little bits like this? The story of my Rhodochiton vine. I think I am beginning to have some luck with how to master raising the beautiful vines with purple bells.

A plant that I have been trying to grow for some time now, is this Rhodochiton atrosanguineus but for some reason, I never had luck germinating the seed. The few catalogs that carry it provide very little information as to the culture of this plant (example: frost free, grow as an annual) That doesn't help me. ,Yet in 1833 it was grown in many collections.

How to grow Rhodochiton atrosanguineus: 

My advice comes from not only old literature and new profession guides, but from my own experience. Use very fresh seed (as-in just picked if poss, or a trusted source. Fresh seed will germinate best, while seed which is one year old, may have a 10% viability). Needs light to germinate, prefers warm temps near 70 but can winter over in a cool greenhouse at 40 deg. F. 

The real 'trick here is nutrition and soil pH. You don't need to test your potting soil, as you can guess the pH if you are using a peat-based mix. Most potting soils are on the acidic side, yet some annuals are very sensitive nutritional deficiency, a fact few if any seed catalogs may share with you, but one that professional growers know, and follow. When in doubt, just perform a Google search on what you want to grow, and read the data and recommendations offered by the bigger seed companies who sell seeds to nurseries and professional growers.

Rhodochiton are noted speedy growers, in the summer temperatures but have some exacting nutritional needs which are almost exactly the same as those required by snapdragons, petunias and nemesia , these all perform best with a soil pH of 5.8 and attention paid to calcium magnesium, salts, and iron. You will need liquid forms of these and the right balance for the plant to be able to utilize them. It's just a fact with some plants, as it is with certain tropical fish, or even humans - chemistry works to our advantage because we are all designed that way. You wouldn't feed your grandmother a teaspoon a salt everyday if she had high blood pressure right?

This means using  CalMag fertilizer to prevent magnesium deficiency and iron/boron deficiency - (you'll know you need it if the plants just slow down, turn yellow and do nothing for months - mine did). 

Don't believe me? Well, remember my nemesia project from last year? 
Bottom line? - Proper nutrition is simply essential (as it is with most plants).  Best to do some on-line research to ensure that you are getting things right in the food department.


  1. Oh I would not change one thing about your blog, I love reading it even though my Camellias and citrus live outside all year and my biggest winter problem is standing water, shotweed and the occasional night in the high 20's. I have always longed for a greenhouse , but with limited real estate I expect that will never happen, so I will continue to enjoy yours virtually.

    1. Why thank you KS! I shall try my best :)

  2. A good read - thank you, Matt. Have you run across a series of books called the Shire Garden History series? Amazon has some, little books, filled with pictures, obsolete terms, and little known, but fascinating, facts...all leading to ideas.

    1. River View - I have not - sounds fascinating - I am off to search for them! tnx.

  3. I find it extremely comforting to think that some things are done in exactly the same way as they were many years ago, and that the skills to do it have been handed down through the generations. I love the curiosity of the Victorians, and their obsessions where gardens are concerned.

    1. I agree, there is some comfort that comes with tradition and nostalgia.

  4. I was looking for your yellow fragrant clivia which i thought was here somewhre as I stumbled upon you, am i correct?


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