Cottage Gardener 7(158): 19-21 (October 9, 1851)
Bedding Geraniums
Donald Beaton

The cottage gardener will have more trouble and anxiety about his bed and border plants for the next three months than for the rest of the whole year. All his Geraniums, he knows by this time, will keep better over the winter, and do so much better next year, if he can save the old plants that have flowered with him this season, and not trouble himself with young ones struck from autumn cuttings. April and May, or, at any rate, early in June, is his best time to grow cuttings of Geraniums to stand the winter; while other gardeners, who have room and conveniences, prefer cuttings made in August or September, because they can put so many of them together into small pots, called store-pots, and so keep great numbers of them in a small compass in their frames and greenhouses; but that is quite different from the proper course of him who has neither greenhouse or pit, and, moreover, is only feeling his way into the secrets of gardening. The smallest cottage-garden in the kingdom is not worth the name of a garden, unless you sec a Scarlet Geranium in it all through the summer. Others may have their Queen's, their Lady Mary Fox's, their Lady Middleton's, and all the other ladies and maids of honour that are so much prized for their gay colours and constant blooming; but ladies of all grades are expensive ornaments, and unless they are treated very kindly it is much better not to attempt to enjoy the luxury, but keep to such as one can manage in a quiet way, after Harry Moore's plan of drying and storing them away in winter; and for such I write this letter. The best way of all to save the Scarlet Geraniums is to begin early to prepare them, and this is a very good time. In the first place, there is a general and a very erroneous idea abroad, that these Geraniums should be taken up as soon as the cold weather sets in, because it is customary among gardeners to do so, as they can keep them green in pots or boxes for a long time, or all the winter if they chose; but for those who must depend on the drying and storing system, without glass or pits, thus to act, will only increase their difficulties and the chances against their stock three-fold. I should not be afraid to risk all the Scarlet Geraniums in England out in the beds till Christmas, on the average of seasons, provided I had to dry them for storing like Dahlia roots; at any rate, ten degrees of frost would not alarm me much. Not a season has passed here for the last ten or twelve years without large numbers of odds and ends of the bedding-plants being left out in winter to take their chance until we were ready to dress the beds, and in the shrubberies and mixed borders they had it all their own way till the spring. No matter what kind of winter we had, I never recollect seeing them all quite killed, except to the surface of the ground, the roots and the collar of the plants generally escaped; and I have known the garden-men often taking these up in the spring when they were forking the borders, and get them up into good plants for the next summer after they had lost all their own pet plants which they kept in-doors; and it is a general remark with them, after a hard winter, that they must have a sharp look out after the old stools, or old plants, left among the shrubs, and yet, like their fellow-cottagers, the first puff of cold wind in the autumn sets them to get up their Geraniums year after year; and if example is better than precept in some things, it is the other way in this instance, their friends and neighbours thinking they cannot do wrong if they follow the example of old garden-men. What I would do under this state of things would be to cut down just now, and quite close, one-half of the shoots that grew this season, and let the rest remain as long as the frost allowed, and as soon as real danger appeared I would cut off all the remaining shoots of that season's growth, except a joint or two at the bottom, if the shoot was brown and well ripened, not without. Now, there is no more trouble in bringing a dozen or a score of Scarlet Geraniums down to this stage, out in the open border, to the middle or end of December, than there is in writing this letter. Then the worst part of the winter season is over for keeping plants. It is not the frost we have so much to fear and to guard against, but the damp. Any one, therefore, who can save potatoes from frost may preserve his Scarlet Geraniums, also, by going the right way about it, and that way is certainly not the usual mode of taking them out of the ground in a soft green state in October. Of course, when we can pot them, or one of them, the sooner in October we get them in the better, for then the branches are to be saved. But that is not the present question; but how best to keep Scarlet Geraniums like winter potatoes. Mr. Rivers, the great rose grower, has shown, years ago, that a large bed of Scarlet Geraniums might be saved any winter by packing six inches deep of moss in among and all round the plants, and I have proved the experiment, for I tried it on purpose, more than once; and does it not appear a very simple contrivance?

Until we can get rid of the old prejudice against keeping them out all the winter, let us say, that by the first of January we have them all dry and housed; but October is the time to begin, and that immediately; cut off half the shoots very near to the old stem. Think of something quite dry, that can be packed round them, on the first appearance of sharp frost; also some boughs, or something else to place over the tops—say a mat over some hoops, to keep the other half of the shoots green as long as you can. When they must go, cut them also, and then what remains is supposed to be well packed with something dry; beech leaves, from a shed or dry heap, will do well, with a few laurel boughs to keep them from blowing about. After this stage, consult your own convenience about the time of taking them in-doors, and if they are in by the turn of the new year, I shall Stand responsible for the result of all this, if carried out to the letter, to the very end of the old year; at any rate, I hope no cottager who reads this will be so foolish as to pull up his Geraniums in October, unless he is provided with means to keep them in pots all the winter. I have said already, that there is nothing gained in preserving them thus in a bed from year to year, because they go to leaf too much, unless the soil is very poor; and it is the same with Dahlias. By-the-by, I ought to have compared the keeping of Dahlias with this way of keeping the Geraniums, and the school way of comparing is just the thing to show it in the proper light—dry, drier, driest. Geraniums, dry, but not quite so; Salvia patens, drier, but not quite dry; and Dahlias, driest. So we see that, gramatically, Geraniums should not be kept quite dry after they are thus prepared and brought into the house. I have seen hundreds of Geraniums killed by over-drying in-doors, but they were five months in store; two months, at least, more than there was any occasion for. As early in March as possible they ought to have been brought to light, and by the first of April, I know not a Scarlet Geranium, thus kept over the winter, that may not be trusted out-of-doors at Inverness, not exposed to all weathers, however, but put into the ground in a warm, sheltered place, and covered over at night, in cold or frosty weather, just as good managers do at present with their Dahlia roots; they put their Dahlias out very early, and when they are well-sprouted, they take them up again and divide them, and then plant them out for good; this is the exact way that all Geraniums, which are kept dry for a time, ought to be managed. One of our correspondents wrote the other day to ask how to get Tom Thumb to flower, after being stored in sand in a cellar from this time last year, till June. The plants were quite bleached, and yet they soon recovered, and made fine plants, with healthy leaves, but little or no blossom. Now, Tom Thumb is one of the worst I know of to keep on the drying system; but it was not dried in reality, it was buried in dryish sand—that is, it was kept very uniform throughout, neither dry nor wet, and that is the happy medium. If those plants of Tom Thumb had been turned out-of-doors, sand and all, at the end of March, and a little dry hay placed over the sand, with some boughs or sticks thrown over it, to keep the hay, or fern, or moss, from blowing away, they would have been quite as safe from frost as when they were in the cellar, and every dry day the covering could be drawn to one side, and put on at night. A few years back, some people thought that some other people were right mad, as I have heard it said, for writing in books and newspapers, that potatoes ought to be planted in October or November, but no one would be afraid now to sit by the side of a man while in the act of writing the advice over again, for any doubts about his sanity or insanity; and so it will be about bedding Geraniums in a few years. We shall by that time hit on the best plan to save them in the beds till the fogs and frosts of November and December are gone, and we shall rout them out of all sorts of places by the end of March, and those who cannot save them for the three months of January, February, and March, why they ought to go without them altogether.

When I came to Shrubland, the garden and farm men began to ask me for cuttings the first summer, and they had some; but the May following they wanted plants, because their first lot got killed by the frost; to some I gave a plant or two, and to others cuttings as before. The third May brought me so many customers that had I been a nurseryman I could have soon emptied my shelves; and yet I did not like to break off our acquaintance, and I hit on the following plan, which answered remarkably well; so well, indeed, that for the first few years I had a strong competition to head against. In the spring Mrs. Strange, the head carpenter's wife, and Mrs. Keane, at the farm, sported their Alba multifloras, their Uniques, and Priory Queens, and Queen of Roses, in better feather than any of us, in fact, there is a local competition in and all round the Park every May against me, and the plan which involved me in the contest was this:—I gave them to understand, distinctly, that any one who lost the third lot of plants next winter should go without any, from me at least, and those who took care of their geraniums were to have some new ones to add to their stock after the winter was over. Nothing more was needed, and every one of them can now manage to keep their plants as well as I can; two or three times I had dead plants brought to me in May, to see what killed them, and prescribed on the spot, and supplied their places, and believe there are very few plants now lost among all our competitors, let the winter be ever so hard.

I believe the safest way to keep geraniums is in boxes, their roots being planted first in damp sand up to the collar, and—to keep the sand from causing damp to rise among the stems, or lose its own dampness for a long time—an inch of the finest ashes, as dry as snuff, to be put over the sand; the stems of the geraniums not to touch each other; some of the smaller roots might be cut away, to allow more room, and an inch of sand should be pressed down in the bottom of the box, before the plants are put in; then begin at one end of the box, and put in a row of plants across, leaving their heads against the end of the box, pack the sand in well among the roots, and shake the box occasionally, to get every crevice among the roots filled up; then another row, and another, till the box is filled, and then is the time to regulate the stems so as not to touch each other; after that put on the dry ashes, and leave the box open for some days or a week; after that I am quite sure the lid, or some covering, should be put on to keep them quite dark, as they are to have no leaves, and hardly any green wood. Darkness, and a uniform temperature, will keep them as well as possible for a long time; but, still, I would have them looked over once in ten days, to see that no part got damp or mouldy, and if it did let it be cut off immediately, and leave the box open for a day or two. In the spring the box should be exposed to the light by the middle of March, and towards the end of the month it might be placed out-of-doors in the daytime, at least, and all night, too, if there are means of throwing some additional coverings over it in very cold weather; thus I would let the whole stand till the buds began to leaf, when the plants are ready to remove to some sheltered border, there to be planted in very light earth, and hoops stretched across, to sustain mats for protection as long as it is needed; or the plants might be put into pots when the leaves appeared, but on no account should they be disturbed in the box till some of the buds opened. The boxes should not be larger than two people could carry about. Of course the same arrangement would do without the boxes, only it would be very inconvenient and very dangerous to move the plants about so early in the spring.

Beaton Bibliography