Midsummer-day might, with advantage, be taken as a signal that it is time to begin to lay our plans for our winter campaign. Instead of this, as a rule, the catalogues, which the bulb merchants never fail to send us, are laid by until, perhaps, some chill November day wakes us, all too late, to the fact that our greenhouse begins to look ragged and forlorn.
To a certain extent, both the experienced gardener and the novice must depend on Dutch bulbs for a bright display of early spring flowers, and it is better to reckon upon an annual outlay for such things as Hyacinths, Tulips, and Florist's Crocus, because they cannot be grown to perfection, year after year, in pots. Even the bi-yearly system, which answers well for many plants, will not in all cases give the best success with these. At the same time, with a rotation of three or four years, we may grow our own bulbs, of most sorts, if there be any reason for doing so.
It is safe to reckon that from twelve to fourteen weeks at least, according to the season, will be required to bring such quick-growing bulbs as Roman Hyacinths and dwarf Tulips into flower.
It is evident, therefore, that, if we want a breath of the spring-tide to reach us when flowers are fewest and most precious, the end of August will be none too soon to find the earliest batch potted of these, and also of some other bulbs to be named presently, followed by more at intervals of a fortnight until the end of October.
It is seldom that Dutch bulbs can be obtained quite so early, but the order should be sent with as little delay as may be after the receipt of the catalogue -a plan which serves the double purpose of securing the finest bulbs and of receiving them at the earliest moment.
The first three or four weeks will be profitably spent by the newly potted bulbs in some retired corner of the garden under a coverlet, 2 or 3 in. thick, of cocoa-fibre, or sifted ashes, which answer the purpose quite as well. This is the best substitute we can give for mother earth, and provides darkness, even temperature, and moisture for the development of the root fibres-a matter of the first importance if we want good flowers.
At the end of that time the pots may be removed, according to the date when they are wanted-for it will not hurt some of them to remain in darkness even for a week or two longer -either to a sheltered spot still in the open where they can be given a little protection, or, better still, to a cold frame.
In either case they must be shaded for a day or two to inure the pushing leaves gradually to the light. In due time they will be ready for their last move to blooming-quarters, and for early spring flowers such as these a greenhouse with a south aspect will naturally give the best results.
This kind of bulb-growing, of which the general outline is here given, is very simple. A few easy rules and careful watering must not be neglected, and then they will take care of themselves ; for good cultivation in the bulb grounds and the summer sunshine have done most of the work, and the flowers already lie folded in their hearts before the bulbs reach us. It would be needless to give such familiar directions were it not that every day one meets with new-fledged gardeners trying their first flight who thankfully accept the plainest hints.
As soon as the flowering is over the bulbs may be planted in the borders, where they will give very acceptable, if smaller, blooms for years to come ; but if they should not be wanted for this purpose, let them not be wasted. Be sure that there is some poor neighbour who cannot afford such luxuries to whom they will be a veritable mine of pleasure.
Narcissus, in its many and varied groups, is perhaps the most charming of all hardy bulbs, and in one form or other will carry us from the dark December days to the end of March, and longer if we wish. Paper White-one of the least satisfactory to grow, and with a somewhat evil smell-is generally reckoned the earliest.
The equally early Scilly White is not grown so much as it deserves, though it is familiar enough in its cut state. It belongs to the Tazetta or bunch-flowered group, and, though it cannot boast the pure white of the South European N. papyraceus, it has a sweeter scent, and the pale lemon of the cup fades by degrees to the creamy tint of the rest of the flower.
This species, said to be a native, if I am not mistaken, of St. Michael's Mount, on the Cornish Coast, or at any rate naturalised there, comes into bloom about Christmas in favourable seasons. On that account it is too tender for the gardens of the mainland, but may be had in perfection under glass during December.
This and some others of the earlier Daffodils may be potted with the first batch of Van Thols and Roman Hyacinths, or even before. Next in order and in quick succession will come such kinds as the pale-tinted N. prxcox and the deeper-toned single varieties of N. pseudo-narcissus and Double Telamonius, the great bosses of which, familiar as they are, can never be out of favour. Then will follow the splendid trumpets of Emperor ; the golden chalice-cups of Sir Watkin ; Ornatus, the earliest of the Pheasant Eyes ; the lovely bicolors, Empress, Horsfieldi, and Grandee, treading on each other's steps ; and the modest drooping heads of the ivory-white N. cernuus.
Or, if we like, we can have double flowers-Butter and Eggs, Bacon and Eggs, and, loveliest of the group, Codlins and Cream-the dear old-fashioned names given them by our forefathers, before even the new-born craze for Daffadowndillies set in. These are all delightful, and can scarcely be surpassed for bold grouping, and are cheap as they are good. The sweet-scented Jonquils must not be forgotten, nor the lovely little double Queen Anne's Favourite (N. capax), nor again that extremely elegant and recent introduction of Mr. Peter Barr's, Queen of Spain.
But we may indulge in rarer kinds if we will, and revel in the lovely forms given to us by that patient and skilful hybridist, the Rev. G. H. Engleheart. Or if miniature kinds are more alluring, there are the three charming species of Hoop-petticoat (Corbularia), yellow, citron, and white, and the dainty N. cyclamineus with its upturned petals. Unlike the so-called " Dutch " bulbs, Narcissus possesses the advantage of being a good garden investment. Most kinds increase so liberally by offsets that by good management we can grow our own bulbs yearly and have enough and to spare.
One point in strong favour of the unheated greenhouse with regard to these and other hardy bulbs must not be passed over without a word. Narcissus is so essentially a hardy genus that many of the most beautiful varieties resent heat and will not give of their best under hard forcing, by which also the bulbs are so much weakened that they are afterwards practically worthless.
The gentle forwarding which is all that hardy plants of this class get under the mere shelter of glass does no harm either to bulb or bloom, while we reap the advantage of the earlier enjoyment of flowers, pure and untarnished by wind or weather.
A cultural hint may be added. Bulbs have a sorry trick of "going blind," i.e., the flowers wither away when beginning to develop. This is mainly due to lack of water. Narcissus, in most cases ; Hyacinths ; Tulips notably, and in fact the greater number of bulbs are greedy of moisture during the rising of the flower scape. After flowering, water should be gradually withheld.
Iris represents another and most precious genus of hardy bulbs and tubers. It has but one failing--the short-lived flowers ; but this is in some degree and in some species atoned for by their long succession.
One of the most beautiful of hardy winter flowers, beginning in late November and continuing until early spring in favoured spots, is Iris stylosa, the pencilled blue flowers of which have also a lovely white counterpart. Though a native of Algeria, it may be safely given a place under the present heading ; but, unfortunately, it is not one of the most easy to flower in pots. This can be done nevertheless, and an established group in a broad deep pan, for it dislikes disturbance at the root, will last for years, and is worth any amount of trouble to attain.
The different forms of I. reticulata, with their sweet scent and rich livery of purple and gold, must find a place in every unheated greenhouse, and will sometimes take us by surprise there on a January day. It is seldom that the different varieties of I. pumila, I. germanica, and similar species are pressed into the service for early flowering under glass, yet they respond so readily to such gentle persuasion that where they have been tried the result has given much satisfaction. Careful cultivation in a prepared garden bed and lifting for potting in alternate years is a good plan to adopt.
The beautiful Spanish and so-called English " Irises, though somewhat " leggy," are not the less useful on that account for grouping with suitable greenery.
Nor must the tiny Iris cristata be forgotten, a perfect gem, with its delicate pale-blue falls and feathery crests. The slugs have such an unfailing instinct for this dainty morsel that I have found the only safe place at flowering time to be some quiet haven under glass. It succeeds well in a deep pan with sunken bits of stone, or planted on a bit of permanent rockwork. A top-dressing of some good light soil now and then helps the rooting stems, and the lovely little flowers lift themselves up at intervals from the leafy points. It is not a showy plant, but one that every lover of flowers must delight in.
Another very distinct hardy species is I. tuberosa, whose quaint green flowers with dark velvety blotches will serve as a natural foil to some of the more brightly coloured kinds. Iris-growing has its deeps as well as its shallows, but we need not fear to get beyond our depth with those named above, or to be without some representative of this lovely tribe for several months of the year. Other species, more delicate, range themselves better under the half-hardy list.
In turning over a parcel of bulbs and tubers, perhaps none look so utterly unpromising as the brown flaps and sticks of different kinds of Anemone and the little dried-up claws of Ranunculus, yet to both of these we are indebted for some of the most brilliant of our spring flowers. In the very early weeks of the year we shall find the splendid colouring of Anemone fulgens and of the best forms of A. coronaria, single and double, added to the lasting quality of the flowers, invaluable for the cold greenhouse. The last gives us, as well as scarlet and good purple, all manner of delicate middle tints.
The working up of a good strain of these most delightful Anemones from seed and by a rigid selection is a most pleasant and interesting task. But some smaller and less showy species must not be overlooked.
The hardy Greek Windflower (A. blanda) and the Italian A. apennina raised from seed will give in succession quantities of their starry flowers of clearest porcelain to deepest azure, and, though we may see them at their best, nestling in mossy glades under the shelter of the budding Chestnut-trees of their native woodlands, yet nothing can be sweeter than the way they open their blue eyes on a sunny morning upon very different surroundings in a strange land.
Another species, A. stellata, which is rosy-purple in its primary form, but ranges from pure white with dark stamens to cherry-red under cultivation, also deserves a place.
Probably most people would think of trying Anemones for an unheated greenhouse without any suggestion. It is much more rare to find Persian Ranunculus grown in pots for the same purpose, yet these are well worth a trial.
Years ago beds of Ranunculus were the pride and glory of many an old-fashioned garden, and the slender claw-like tubers were increased and preserved, year after year, with the utmost skill, and laid by in paper bags with loving care until planting time ; but now we should probably do better to buy our stock yearly.
In a warm greenhouse Ranunculus fails utterly in pots, but in a cold frame there should be no difficulty, and a September potting ought to give most acceptable flowers in April, when we begin to want a change from Narcissus and Hyacinths.
Of miscellaneous hardy bulbs and tubers, what a long list might be given. Let a few be named by way of reminder, To begin with, there are large Snowdrops of sorts which coaxing will seldom bring into flower before their appointed time, but which open pure and free from stain under glass ; and Winter Aconite, not amiss upon a wintry day and almost as happy in a moss-surfaced pan as in a furrow of its native olive-yard on the Italian hills.
There is the lovely Crocus Imperati, in pencilled lilac and buff, and other delicate winter-flowering species, beloved of many far above their more robust Dutch brethren, which flower a little later. Sisyrinchium grandiflorum, too, craves for shelter from the January blast for its fragile bells, purple or white ; while Chionodoxa and Scilla, able to brave the hardest frosts, are yet very willing to take life more easily. Cyclamen Coum and C. vernum, too, with their allies, rosy or pure white with marbled foliage, are ready to give us beautiful leaf forms when the flowers are gone.
Another lovely thing, too much beloved of slugs in the open, and well worthy of shelter, is Ornithogalum nutans, which decks itself daintily in green and silver, while the peculiar sheen of its spikes of drooping flowers under artificial light makes it a dinner-table decoration quite unique in its effect.
As spring advances, there is Lily-of-the-Valley, welcome early or late ; and English Fritillaries, chequered like some bit of old-world chintz, or white, or palest lemon, with nodding heads ; and exotic forms like F. aurea, not slender and fragile like the others, but hanging its large golden flowers upon stems only three or four inches high.
The various species of Tulip, again-which must not be confused with the garden varieties-give us a wide range of choice, from the strikingly fine T. Kaufmanniana to the dainty little rose-and-white T. Clusii.
These are but a few, and every one of these, and many more that might be added to the number, can be grown in the open border, most of them without much trouble, whilst it is not to be denied that good cultivation in pots entails a considerable amount of labour and care; but it has its reward when flowers are rare and cold damp days forbid much lingering in the garden in search of the few that may happen to be there.