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Rye Harbour

The Victorian Winter Garden

by Fuchsia Green

This article is intended to be the first in a series of seasonal articles about some unusual crops and techniques the professional Victorian Gardener, used. In my research I have used some of my rapidly growing collection of authentic books and periodicals of the time.

A great deal of Victorian writing is dedicated to the production of food crops, i.e. fruit and veg, as at that time they couldn't just go down to the local supermarket, they had to produce their own. Especially the large estates who had to feed several hundred people, in some cases.

They also had to provide cut flowers and pot plants for 'the Big House'. Especially when large winter shooting parties, or Christmas celebrations took place.

This article will be in two parts. In part 1 I will cover 'Flowers for the Drawing Room and the Wardian Case' and part 2 will be concerned with one vegetable crop, 'The Forcing of Seakale'.

My aim is to give you a feel of the overall Victorian 'Big House' gardening system. Plus a few hints as to how we might apply these techniques today.

Part 1

The Flower Garden- 'Flowers for the Drawing-Room and the Wardian Case'

There were a large number of cut flowers available to the Victorian Head Gardener and additionally during the Winter, flowering plants, such as Camelias, Myrtles and what are described as 'drawing room geraniums with insignificant flowers and richly scented leaves' would have mostly been used. I take these to be Scented Geraniums, such as Pelagonium crispum (rose geranium) which incidentally can also be used to flavour sauces and jellies.

But what I want to talk about in this article is something a little different, and something that you may not have heard about, the Wardian Case. This was invented originally by Nathaniel Ward to bring home exotic plants from far flung places, on the long sea voyages. The 'Wardian Case' (as it came to be called) then consisted of a totally sealed box creating it's own little enviroment and temporary preserving the plant. Ward also designed cases for display at the 'Great Exhibition' in 1851.

And so Wardian Cases took on almost legendary status and there became a bit of a buying mania, for all the wierd any wacky and in many cases badly designed versions available . Unfortunately, many plants eventually withered and died , as obviously all plants need care, food etc and the cases need to be properly constructed and prepared before any plants were added.

What follows are somewhat edited instructions on the construction and care of a Wardian Case, given in this case in 1857.

The soil box should be 6 inches deep lined with zinc, the bottom perforated with small holes, one to every 6 inches (to allow the excess moisture to escape). The glazed part of the structure should be as light as possible, with metallic bars, and the fewer the better. Two feet is as high as we should like them, that is 18 inches for the sides and 6 inches for the roof. One of the sides should have a door wide enough to allow the reaching the most distant part to wipe the glass inside when necessary, and take up or put in a plant if we desire it. From back to front should measure 12 inches sufficient to contain a few good specimens rather than a crowd concealing each other.

The soil should be a mixture of loam made from rotted turfs, general garden compost, peat, all passed through a sieve. This should be mixed with a fourth part of silver-sand and half dung rotted into mould. Then for drainage 5 parts of this mix to one part broken clay pot pieces (or crocks as we might call them) and common cinders (charcoal can be sustituted for this today), both previously sieved to remove any dust. Once the compost has been well mixed, place it in the box evenly. Water well until the wet runs through into the receptacle provided for it ; constructed so that the bottom of the box cannot touch the water thus preventing drainage. The case would now be ready for planting, Suitable plants are a collection of ferns, but these can be replaced in January, February, March and April with hyacinths, tulips, crocusses, jonquils, narcissuses and spring bulbs generally. These would merely require to have been potted in September, October, November and December- a portion each month. In May some of the bulbs would still be in flower and; and we might add double stocks, mignionette, gold and double wallflower.

These could then be followed by replacing all manner of perennials, shrubs and bulbs as they come into flowering season. Thus obtaining year round flowers for the drawing room needing little attention.

Part 2

"The Forcing of Seakale" (botanical name Crambe maritima)

I'll start with the small,basic quick version you can do at home, or in the glasshouse and follow it with how the Victorians would have done it.

The Quick Version

Firstly either grow a few Sea-Kale plants from seed, or buy a couple of 2 year old seedlings, if you can find them.

Next, plant them in singly in a large pot, water well and cover with a bucket, or something similar, to exclude the light. Place this contraption somewhere warm, such as in an airing cupboard, on top of a boiler, or beside a fire, if you have one. Keep the soil fairly moist and within a week or two, you will have a fine, small crop of Sea-Kale to impress your gardening friends with.

Now to the Victorian method as adopted by large estate gardens or market gardeners.

The first task you need to perform with seakale is the bed preparation. This is best done in November and has many similarities with the preparation of the Asparagus bed.

So to the bed preparation.

Firstly select a very open position, with a deep light soil and dig in plenty of composted manure. If the soil is a little heavy you may need to add some grit or sand. Once the bed has been initially dug it should not be dug again, just mulched regularly with composted manure, so it is important to get the preparation and the drainage right at the beginning. The beds should be about 4 feet apart with 2 feet pathways between them. Once the beds have been made don't ever walk about on them,or you'll cause compaction and ruin all your good work.

Spread the beds with a thin layer of salt. "Let it remain from this time to the last week of March"

Then hoe the beds well and sow the seeds in patches 2 feet apart each way. Using a dibber plant about 6 seeds spread in a 6 inch circle 2 inches deep. The Victorians didn't immediately cover up these seeds until the full row was sown and then covered them with a little mound of wood ashes.

This wood ash would get washed into the soil adding valuable potash to encourage growth.

As the seeds germinate keep them well weeded and thin them by about half.

Keep the seedlings well watered during dry spells throughout the summer. After rain when the soil is still damp and warm liberally apply liquid seaweed or other good dilute liquid fertiliser. The Victorians applied "a good soaking of house- sewage"! , most unsanitory!.
They also applied a regular light dustings of woodash, this can be substituted with more modern readily prepared products available from your local garden store.

Once the crowns are a year old they are big enough for 'forcing'. Inccidentely, the Victorians also used the same techniques for forcing Asparagus and Rhubarb which was begun, as for Sea- Kale, in November.

They also adapted this technique for the glasshouse and even for indoors 'by the fire', as described above.

Back to forcing outside. The Victorians used special Sea- Kale pots made from terracotta, which completely excluded the light and so blanching the leaves inside. This was achieved by sprinkling the plant with Sulphur (to prevent rotting) putting the pot on top. Next "heap the dung all around and all over the pot, pat it gently to make it lie close, and let each heap extend to fifteen or sixteen inches from the pot all round"

The idea of all this dung is to keep the pot at a constant temperature of between 55 and 65oF and so encourage the growth of the Sea-Kale.

After a couple of weeks you would have had beautiful, blanched, tender Seakale. Much apprecated at that time when the produce available would have been mainly limited to that in the root store.

Why not have a go yourself at forcing Sea-Kale or making your own Wardian Case? Let me know how you get on and share your results with the rest of the gardening world!
email me on helen@gardenadvice.co.uk





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