A mistake which is made by most novices is to sift their potting-soil, thereby taking from it the best part of its nutriment. It is necessary, sometimes, in delicate seed-sowing to use sifted soil, but otherwise it is scarcely ever of advantage.
Besides this turfy loam from the stack, we should be provided with some good sound peat, which is absolutely needful for certain classes of plants. This can be procured in large or small quantities through any local nurseryman. All leaves should be collected every autumn and carefully laid up in a heap to decay, as leaf-mould is a most important factor in lightening and enriching the soil on the potting-bench.
Lastly there should be a supply of sharp sand, and here a few words may be needed as to its different qualities. The beginner invariably thinks that any kind of sand will answer, but this is far from being the case. Silversand is generally recommended, and answers fairly well, but for the most part it is too fine, nor is it always easy to obtain.
If it be possible, therefore, to procure locally a coarser quality, more of the character of finely crushed granite or quartz, it is very much to be preferred. The coarse grit used by builders will generally do equally well for potting purposes, but builders do not always trouble themselves to get the best for their own use. Sea-sand, thoroughly washed from salt, may also be used where it can be easily obtained.
But the fine sand of the green-sandstone formation, or indeed any of soft earthy texture, is positively injurious to pot plants, clogging the soil instead of making it free and open. In some districts, especially where flints abound, road-grit is the very best that can be procured for the purpose. The use of sand, be it remembered, is merely mechanical and not nutritive; nevertheless it is indispensable, as it assists drainage and keeps the soil permeable and sweet. A bag of charcoal is another addition to the potting-shed which should not be omitted. It is most useful as drainage, being much lighter than the potsheards in common use, while at the same time, it supplies a fund of nourishment to the growing roots.
Pounded very small, it may be mixed with potting-soil to the great benefit of most plants, including Ferns, and especially for such as do not require re-potting every year. Where bulbs are grown in water, as they not infrequently are, a piece of charcoal dropped into it keeps the water fresh and pure. It is also a help to those cuttings-and there are many such-which it is convenient to root in water. With regard to drainage, an inch or more of broken sheards should be placed over the hole at the bottom of every pot-a single piece not being sufficient, as is too often supposed-and this may with advantage be supplemented by a layer of dead leaves or moss, which prevents the rubble from becoming choked. In potting, the soil should he made very firm, and a wooden rammer, which may be either round or flat, is a very useful tool to keep at hand, though the " potter's thumb" is an implement no more to be dispensed with in gardening than in the moulding of pottery.
Loose potting is the mark of an inexperienced hand, and very few plants succeed under such a system-for one reason because water runs through the loose soil too quickly, draining away the nutritive particles, while insufficient moisture is left behind to sustain the roots. Besides this, however, the fibres evidently like to feel the resistance of the firm earth as they push their way into it.
Not many tools are necessary. Besides the rammer aforesaid, we must be provided with a strong, sharp knife for cuttings, a budding-knife and a pair of scissors, but one tool may be suggested which is not often used by gardeners. This is the smallest size of mason's trowel, with the sharp point rounded off, which will be found much more handy than the ordinary scoop-trowel for the work of potting. A skein of Raffia should also have its appointed hook in the potting-shed, to be ready for all tying purposes.
A few bundles of wooden labels of different sizes should be at hand, as well as a pot of white paint, for a dash of this on the broad end of the label, wiped off with a bit of rag until the merest film remains, is the best preparation for legible writing.
The mention of summer quarters occurs very frequently in the preceding pages, and a properly arranged position where pot plants out of flower can be placed and cared for during their period of rest is one of the most important considerations for any possessor of a greenhouse. A bed of cocoa-nut fibre, or even ashes, under a north wall is a good situation for some plants. Others, again, require a more open, sunny position, that they may get their wood well ripened to ensure the next year's flowering. Therefore it is well to choose sites in both aspects.
A cold frame with a brick or concrete floor, safe from garden vermin, and facing south, is admirable for Cacti and such like plants which enjoy summer rains as well as summer sunshine, and the lights can be entirely removed for two or three months with great benefit. Similar quarters will suit Cape bulbs at rest, such as Freesias, Nerines, and Lachenalias, but in their case the lights must be left on, as it is essential that they be kept absolutely dry and baked during the weeks which intervene between the fading of the leaf and potting-time, which comes in most cases about the end of July and during August.
Cold frames are useful, besides, in a hundred different ways. In addition to these plunging-beds and wooden or brick frames, there should always be a reserve space, generally to be found in the kitchen garden, where certain plants and bulbs may be planted out to recruit after a season of flowering under glass. This is always a weakening process, though much less so in an unheated greenhouse than when stronger forcing is in practice : still, most plants are benefited by a term of free growth in the open air. Some may be lifted every autumn, and can be trusted to do their duty well, but others require to be treated on the alternate system, flowering one year and resting the next ; while in the case of bulbs, if we wish to raise our own stock, a longer rotation will be necessary.
The treatment of pot plants at rest is a part of gardening sadly set aside by the average amateur. The professional gardener knows too well how much his future success depends upon the care then given to neglect it. It is true that it is not always easy to provide all the accommodation that is most suitable, but it behoves every grower to make the best preparation in his power for this purpose, remembering always that the greenhouse itself is far from being the fittest place in which pot plants, for the most part, can recruit their spent strength and make ready for the next season's campaign.
All the above may seem to be trifling and unimportant details, scarcely worth insising upon, for they come naturally, as it were, to old gardeners ; but it is a great help to a beginner to be put on the right path from the outset, as every one will bear witness who has gone through the helpless stage of floundering in and out of initial difficulties.