The Cottage Gardener, 5(108): 46-48 (October 24, 1850)
Donald Beaton

NEW PLANTS.—The great fault of public writers with respect to what they say about new plants is, that they, the writers, myself amongst the rest., are too apt to jump into conclusions, and to pronounce a new plant as either good-for-nothing, or else praise it up to the skies; and for some years past we have had a writer or two who take a different course, but still an objectionable one with many, and put up every new plant they describe in the scales of comparative merit against the most popular plants which happen to be in the same genus, and no matter how good former plants may have been found; the new plant must be shown to have something about it which of necessity must, or should, raise it higher in the scales. But of these three ways of pushing new plants into or out of circulation, that which condemns them before the trial, or just after an imperfect trial, is least to be attended to, and the most likely to cause bickerings between dealers and the public. Indeed, public writers on plants are not required to sit in judgment between the trade and the public; and if they do at times see cause for saying this, that, or the other thing about a new plant, the safest way is to lean in favour of the stranger until the public give it a fair trial, and then one may chime in with either side, according to one's own judgment.. Half the gardening writers endeavoured last year to write down the Chinese Leadwort (Plumbago Larpentae), and they succeeded so far, that the mass who like to be led by the sleeve rather than take the trouble to think for themselves, turned away from it as from an unclean thing. I was nearly as far wrong on the other side, but that was more with a view to stem the torrent of prophecy which prejudged a stranger without a hearing—a very un-English way of dealing out justice. I did not care one straw whether the plant would do in the flower-garden or not; but knowing it to be in the hands of the trade, and selling lower than trumpery verbenas and petunias not worth a penny per dozen, before it was spoken against in our periodicals, I wrote in its favour, that we might all give it a trial; and if all had failed with it, no great harm could be done. But it has not failed. I have a bed of it in full bloom now, when almost all the summer plants are gone; and if I live another year, I shall plant four beds, on purpose for this time of the season, when families in the country enjoy their late flowers as they are getting scarce. It began to bloom in the first week in September, and by the 20th was in full bloom; and what brought it to my mind to say anything about it now is, that a great gardener, the superintendent of one of our ducal establishments, who called on me the other day, admired it much and regretted that he was led away against it last season from what he read about it. He, too, will have a couple of beds of it next season, and so will many more besides, for this season has taught its a little more of its character and constitution. It is perfectly hardy; will do better in poor than in rich soil; requires to be planted thin, or thinned afterwards; and as it is a late autumnal bloomer out of doors, it must have a free exposure in a sunny aspect. Then, as long as the frost holds off, it comes in as a second or third rate bed, according to the stock of bedders in use, and after the frost few will compete the leadership with it; besides, the bed is not an eye-sore through the rest of the autumn, for it will stand brim-full, and look well after the flowers are gone. It is, on the other hand, not suited for small places, where every bed should be in bloom with something or other from the time the spring bulbs come in till the frost clears off the autumn crop.

HALF-HARDY PLANTS.—Just at the time that I was learning how to plant cabbages, the greatest efforts in gardening, and that for which a man got the most credit, were to change the nature of greenhouse and half-hardy plants, so as to enable them to stand the frost in our country. I think it was in the “Memoirs" of the Caledonian Horticultural Society that a clever article then appeared describing a new way of "acclimatising," as the process was called, which caused a great stir on the other side of the Grampian range; tunnelling this mountain back-bone from Perth to Inverness would have been nothing to it now. The way the thing was to be done, was to bring over fine plants from the north of Africa, say from Morocco to Alexandria, sow their seeds on the northern borders of the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar to Athens; and when the plants produced seeds, they in their turn were to be sown more inland, and the next generation more northward still, and in process of time the fifth or sixth generation would be fit and proper to do for themselves in London; and the seventh generation, always a lucky number, were to find their way and prosper on either shore of the Murray Firth. All this, to my own knowledge, was firmly believed by sensible people at that time; but who believes it now! who, indeed. The Kidney Bean, the Capsicum, the Tomato, and all our acquaintances of that stamp, have been got yearly from seeds, time out of mind, in every part of our country, without a perceptible difference being made in their powers to resist the climate; and these same plants were all this time proving another fallacy, which, even at this day, finds advocates amongst our highest authorities in such matters, and that is, that seedling varieties in course of time will revert to the parent or wild stock if they are successively raised from seed. It is true there are some few plants which have a tendency that way under particular circumstances, but they are as one out of a thousand compared with those which, when once removed, if but one stage, from the wild condition of the plant, no art of the gardener has yet succeeded to cause this reversion. Hence the danger, not to say the folly, of drawing conclusions from inconclusive evidence, or from some few isolated facts.

But to our present purpose. Then, as no art of the gardener can turn the original nature of a plant, save by cross-breeding, nature must be assisted, and half-hardy plants must be looked to in time, before we are overtaken by the winter. "Winter" comes in at the very end of our new dictionary, but wintering plants will often have to be mentioned in the body of the work; until many of the numbers are out, we must, therefore, go on in the old way, answer old questions as before. But we expect to be much relieved from repeating the same thing over and over again as soon as the dictionary is completed; and we also look for an entire new set of questions, suggested from a great host of old and now ideas which we are now gathering together in this book.

The oldest question of all, and the most pressing just now, is, "how am I to keep my geraniums, &c., &c., this winter. I have neither greenhouse, pit, nor frame, and the plants have so grown in the borders that they will be too large to stand in the window. Last winter we managed to keep the young Scarlet geraniums in a window in 'the passage,' or in the 'spare room' up stairs, and the windows were available for better things. Such plants were turned out in the borders last May, and after a while they looked most healthy, but now they are so big who can do anything with them? Might as well think of housing gooseberry bushes, and yet we are very loath to lose them, and we forgot to make cuttings of them at the proper time; how would you or Mr. Beaton act if you were thus pinched?" Now, where there is neither glass nor spare windows, it is hopeless to try to keep verbenas over the winter; indeed, they are the most troublesome things in the world to keep over the winter without good convenience, and many other small, soft-wooded plants are little better; but as for strong Scarlet geraniums, any one may keep them with ordinary care, and the larger and stronger they are the easier it will be to keep them. The same care and treatment that will secure dahlias will also do for them; all the leaves and the soft part of the shoots must be cut away when the plants are taken up from the borders, then dry them partially in an open shade or somewhere away from the frost, and than they are ready for storing; and then where potatoes can be kept in-doors, will do for them also. Damp and frost, and extreme dryness, are alike to be avoided; and by looking over them once a month to see that they do not suffer from either of these extremes, there is no reason why any one may not keep lots of them. Here, where we have as many conveniences as most people, we keep several thousands of these scarlets, every winter just in the same way—under stages planted in sand or light soil, in back sheds under great myrtle trees, upon dry shelves in outhouses, or, indeed, anywhere that is safe from frost. Their only advantage beyond those of the cottager being that, with flues or pipes we make sure from frost. We store large numbers of them in the same pots and boxes that they were growing in through the summer, first cutting them well down and scraping off the surface soil, and for four months they hardly get a drop of water. We still prefer "Harry Moore's plan" of keeping them in the same pots and soil from year to year, and make up for the loss of strength in the soil by liquid manure after the end of May. Harry's own boxes of them have been very much admired this autumn; they are now five years in the same boxes, and he keeps them down in the cellar in winter; but his cellar is very dry. No one can possibly keep a geranium in a damp cellar.

In cold pits we now use pots for bedding geraniums, except for some fancy sorts. They are planted in light soil, and the glass taken off every fine day, and the dead leaves ore picked off occasionally. We have one range of quite low pits, which hold about seven thousand of young plants this way, and there are no means of giving them artificial heat—nothing save a single mat to keep the glass clean—with powerful coverings of stubble and loose straw over, and we have less trouble with them that way than with older plants in pots with their leaves on. Roots of old Salvias, such as the fulgens, splendens, and chamaedrioides, we keep much after the same way. We keep them to plant out in mixed borders with Phloxes, Penstemons, and a host of other old border plants; but for beds we make up a young stock from cuttings every autumn. Old Fuchsias will keep in cold sheds without any danger, but all of them for the flower-garden will keep just as well in the borders, with a few inches of leaves placed over them, and many of them will do without any covering. There is no better way of keeping a bed of Tigridias than by covering the bed with dry leaves and then thatching it to throw off the wet. The bulbs of these are very ticklish to keep if they are taken up in the autumn, as they are seldom ripe enough before the frost sets in; and unless they are quite ripe they decay from the bottom by the score. One single mat is sufficient to save the old Linum flavum, the gayest little yellow bedder one could wish at midsummer; and for a front border of Ixias and their allies, with a great number of other little bulbs belonging to the Amaryllis tribe, which are mentioned in our dictionary, nothing is better than thin boards with feather edges nailed together; as that sort of covering will throw off the wet, of which they are much more impatient than of cold dry winds or a little frost.

It is very strange how little is attempted to be done with the scores of neat little bulbs that would flower in the spring and early summer in front of a cottage close to the wall where little else would grow. The reason must be that so little is said of them in books and periodicals since Mr. Sweet died. He used to keep the whole country alive with such fine tales about them month after mouth, but now one hears very little about them unless some new little bulb comes to be figured. I am quite sure there are no less than one thousand species of this class of bulbs that would afford endless amusement to any one who would take the trouble of preparing a front border for them. They are like children, they always want something doing to them. and there is constantly something new to be learned about them. I should be afraid to say how many hundreds of pots full of them I saw last summer with Mr. Appleby; and he is just as fond of them as everybody knows he is of those strange orchids he writes about. I wish he would lock up these orchid houses for a month and treat us with various dishes of little bulbs; at any rate, I hope he will cram them into the dictionary, that I for one may have another turn at them, as people used to say some years back. I was bulb mad. But I have sadly forgotten them, and am now over head and ears with the Amaryllis again, and I have made a strange discovery in them this very season. The Candalabra plants, called Brunsvigias, are true Amaryllises, which is known to many already; but few would dream of their breeding with the purple Vallota but they have done so; and if I could send the breed, and that between the Vallota and the Cyrtanths to California, where they could enjoy their proper climate, we should some day see the whole race flowering with their leaves on, which none of the older family ever did before. The Calochorts of the golden regions would then be eclipsed on their native soil. But, alas a man ought to talk about such things at five and twenty, and not at the age of ...

George Gordon wrote to Charles Darwin (24 Dec 1855) regarding seeds he received from Beaton: "The other Cross between Brunsvigia Josephinae & Vallota purpurea have done well, we have now two nice bulbs."

Beaton Bibliography