How Others Have Succeeded With House Plants
( Originally Published 1923 )
A group of healthy looking, vigorous-growing house plants always fills me with delight for it must be confessed at the out-set that the thoroughly successful cultivation of a large number of plants in a window garden or in any part of a dwelling house is no mean achievement. The conditions with which living plants have to contend when brought into our ordinary living rooms are trying indeed. The fluctuations of temperature are usually not only great, but also sudden; light is neither uniform nor abundant; and the atmosphere is generally excessively dry. This last condition is particularly true in the winter time, when our rooms are heated by artificial means and every degree of heat that is thus supplied for our individual comfort is taxing the energy of the plant in causing transpiration of water at a time when, normally, plant growth is at its minimum activity.
The cultivation of plants in the house, then, is very largely an individual problem of overcoming a set of opposing conditions which will never be the same for two individuals nor for the same individual in two different places. What we have to strive for is to maintain a fairly comfortable, average condition, and it is really surprising, when all things are taken into consideration, what eminently satisfactory results can be achieved. I have seen window gardens that from one year's end to another are perfect blazes of colour; in others, again, plants grown for their foliage effect alone have flourished amazingly. Yet similar plants in the homes of other people dwindled and finally died.
The ideal situation for a window garden is on the south side of the house, the window itself slightly projecting from the building line, so as to secure abundance of light, for the sunshine is the life. In addition, just because the winter and spring sun may sometimes be too energetic for plants at rest, there should be some arrangement of adjustable shades to screen the excessive light which might be injurious to some of the younger growths in the early days of spring. Plants that have been kept in dark corners of dwelling rooms — such as palms or ferns — when brought into the window garden to resuscitate, will be thankful for such careful protection while the sun is at its hottest. Many ingenious de-vices have been thought out by amateur gardeners to meet the requirements and to provide the necessary best available conditions for their pets, and surely if one is about to indulge in window gardening on anything like an extensive scale, it is the part of wisdom to make a good beginning by giving them the best chance possible for a comfortable life.
It is often not at all difficult to build a small extension outside a window for the accommodation of house plants, and a little addition like this, on a slightly more pretentious scale, very easily approaches the dignity of a small greenhouse; and in a great many respects will serve the same purpose, as for raising seeds of plants to be put out in the garden later, whether these be flowering plants or vegetables.
A PIAZZA CONSERVATORY
I know of one instance where a ten-footsquare corner of a piazza was brought into service by enclosing it with glass so that it might have been surely called a piazza conservatory. Its owner preferred tO refer to it merely as a "glass house" on account of its small dimensions, but I venture to say that this small place gave more pleasure, and perhaps more flowers, to its owner than some other real greenhouses on a much more elaborate scale. Besides the flowers, the glass house is big enough to hold comfortably a wicker armchair and a teastand. The house is built on one corner of the porch, and gets the early morning sun from the east, and the south and west sun later in the day.
The first year a small coal stove was installed in one corner, and the temperature varied from tropical to arctic in a startling manner; but in spite of being baked one hour and chilled the next, the plants managed to survive. The coal stove was succeeded by a smokeless oil heater, which has proved, except in windy and very cold weather, a most satisfactory arrangement. The heating question was finally settled for good by running a pipe from the furnace underneath the drawing room out intO the glass house.
The glass house was first furnished with some stocks and cannas taken from the garden, and some ferns and green-leaved plants. Just a few days before Christmas the first box of paper-white narcissus is in full bloom, and since then the house is not without a flower. Freesias, Chinese sacred lilies, and more paper white narcissus follow in January, and about the middle of the month the azaleas commence and keep bravely on until the last of March. Before the flowers of the last box of narcissus wither, the early Yellow Prince tulip starts in, about the 15th of February, lasting till near the end of March.
One hundred and fifty Gladiolus Colvillei, planted early in January, gave dozens of white and pink flowers in the third week of May. Wisterias in large pots, and hyacinths came next, while more tulips (variety Murillo) and a huge plant of double flowering cherry (Prunus Pseudo-Cerasus, var. hortensis (fore-pleno, known in the trade as P. Sieboldii, var. rubra plena) made March gay with pink tints. The calla lilies flower until May.
In such a place as this seeds of the green-house type of plant, such as primrose, cineraria, and calceolaria, may be started in the usual way, in flats with window glass over the boxes to prevent too rapid evaporation of the moisture, but care must be taken to secure the right soil. Finely sifted woods earth, mixed with one-third sandy loam, has proved a reliable combination in the hands of the lady who presides over the house, in which to germinate the seeds of these plants. Drainage is provided by a layer of sharp sand and bits of broken crockery and char-coal in the bottom of the box.
When the seedlings have developed three or four leaves, they are transplanted to one and one-half inch pots, using about the same soil and drainage as in the flats, adding a small quantity of well-rotted cow manure.
The pots are now plunged to the rims in sand to keep the soil moist.
As it may be of practical value to others I give, in Chapter XVII., the "calendar of operations" for this piazza house. It's valuable because it is real experience, not a table of guesses.
BUILDING AROUND A CELLAR DOOR
Another triumphant solution of a some-what similar problem of making a plant-house attachment to the dwelling resulted in utilizing the heat from the furnace and making a removable house around the cellar door. The story is best told by the one who did it all:
"The south door opens upon a small porch, with the outside cellar door under part of its roof. One French window also opens upon it. The floor of this porch was directly on the ground, and, as the boards had rotted away, we removed them, substituting a floor of cement.
"The cellar is low, and a modern furnace heated it beyond the point of wisdom. We sought an outlet for the heat and immediately the conservatory shaped itself. By enclosing the small porch in glass and removing the outside cellar doors, the heat from the cellar would be released and the conservatory warmed. By leaving the hall door open and removing the French windows from the living room, we gained more heat and better ventilation.
"Our desire was to have as much glass and as little wood as was possible for strength and durability. We also desired the glass panes to butt and not be puttied. It was necessary to have a door in front of the cellar door for the removal of coal ashes, and transoms for ventilation. With this general plan the work was begun. A heavy timber was run along the floor and bolted at the corners (the conservatory must disappear in summer time). A corresponding timber ran along the edge of the porch ceiling. Uprights were then placed at certain intervals, and these were grooved to admit of the glass sliding down them. Photographic plates, 11 x 14, freed from the gelatine, made the glass panes for our conservatory.
"Curtains of unbleached muslin were arranged for; the rollers, four and five feet long respectively, were of tin. These were set at the bottom, along the beam, and the curtains drawn up by means of a sash cord and pulleys.
"Two trays about table height were constructed. They were four inches deep, to admit of sand in them in which to sink the pots. A shelf was made about two inches from the floor on these tray tables, and formed an admirable place for seed boxes and for starting bulbs.
"The curtains proving insufficient protection from the sun, we coated the outside of the structure with a lime wash to keep off the direct rays. As for the heating, there was ample, and our cellar was kept in the finest condition. When the thermometer registered 4 below zero out of doors, the glass or garden room registered 56 degrees.
"The cost of this structure (before the World War) was:
The labour included cutting the glass and placing it in the frames where it was needed.
THE HEATING PROBLEM
Perhaps, after all, the greatest stumbling-block in window gardening lies in the matter of heating. Very naturally one wants to have, as the fruits of this hobby, plants in flower during the winter season. The most ingenious method I ever heard of was the construction of a miniature gas furnace in the cellar to heat a portable window extension box, and it was by no means expensive. The scheme was evolved out of the desire to force bulbs; it came as an inspiration one October day when overhauling the storm windows preparatory for winter. Two tall, narrow ones which had been made useless by remodeling the sitting-room suggested the thought that here was a start toward the little conservatory. They were of exactly the same height as the storm sash of the south dining-room window. Here, then, were three sides of a window greenhouse; moreover, they exactly fitted each other and the window.
By means of four long screws on a side, the two narrow sashes were fastened to the window frame at the exact places where the vertical edges of the regular storm sash belonged — only they were at right angles to the wall of the house, projecting into space. The regular storm sash was now screwed to the outer edges of the two sashes already in place, forming a generous space, ideally lighted, requiring only a top and bottom tO make a splendid window-conservatory.
Half-inch boards nailed across formed the bottom and two oak brackets supported the whole. Two tapering boards were fitted to the top making a roof with a pitch and overhanging eaves sufficient to shed any kind of weather. Old rubber floor matting tacked over all made the top and bottom waterproof. A tight joint with the house was made by continuing the rubber back and up under the bottom of the first clapboard.
Three six-inch shelves were placed across both side sashes by means of five-inch brackets. When still more room was necessary, additional six-inch shelves were laid across the front with their ends resting on the first set. This provided three complete tiers of shelves running around the three sides of the conservatory. Without crowding, about seventy-five pots and pans of various sizes can be accommodated here. As zero weather approached, the warmth from the dining room proved inadequate and other means of maintaining the requisite temperature to keep the plants growing were Sound to be necessary, so a miniature furnace was installed.
A three-eighth-inch pipe was run from the natural gas main in the cellar through the cellar window and up through the bottom of the conservatory, ending in an ordinary gas burner. This gave plenty of heat but the fumes from the gas proved objectionable and the arrangement was abandoned for the following which works admirably.
For $2.25 a tiny gas stove was purchased. This was placed on the cellar floor directly below the cellar window under the conservatory. A short smoke-pipe was connected to the nearest chimney opening in order to dispose of the fumes. A tinsmith made a galvanized iron hood which fitted down over and completely enclosed the stove; it had a number of one-inch holes along its bottom edges for circulation, and a sliding door for access to the stove. Its top was drawn up to form a collar about eight inches in diameter. From this collar an eight-inch flue ran up and out through the cellar window (from which a pane had been removed), and ended at a five by seven inch register set into the floor of the "conservatory." The flue was enclosed in a wooden box or outer flue for insulation throughout its entire length outdoors.
This formed virtually a miniature hot-air furnace. The tiniest flame warmed the stove, which in turn warmed the air enclosed in the galvanized hood. This warm air flowed up the pipe through the register and gave the plants just what they needed — pure, moist, warm air.
But it may not be possible always to instal a carefully designed heating plant, and many are the cases where satisfactory window gardens are maintained by the heat from the adjoining room alone — no extra apparatus — but of course no real forcing is done here. In one such simple garden, situated on the south side of the house, it is found by experience that the best results could be obtained by watering the plants frequently and keeping the adjoining library at an even temperature of 70 degrees.
About the 1st of October every year the window garden is filled with chrysanthemums, of which it holds about four dozen. These flowers last till the end of November, when they are replaced by the real winter flowers, first among which are the geraniums, which are hardy and do not require much care and will remain in flower through-out the winter. Heliotropes also do very well. Candytuft in boxes does much better than if placed singly in pots, and makes a better showing. Nasturtiums with plenty of room and strings to climb on will remain in flower all winter. Mignonette and begonias can also be grown to advantage, and do not require much care. In fact, any flower of a hardy nature will flourish in one of these gardens.
CONTROL OF TEMPERATURE
Never let the cold, frosty air strike your plants, for it will kill them; nor let the temperature of the room vary between too wide limits (20 degrees would be safe, but extreme during the day ; the night temperature can be as much as 10 degrees below the day minimum). If at One time the plants are overheated, and the next moment chilled, their growth is stunted and their bloom killed.