Window Gardening and House Plants

This is the first article in January of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on January 13, 1909.

For this article, Marion spends time on the topic of window gardening and specifically on her Wardian case. I had never heard of a Wardian case before and needed to look it up before continuing the article. As found on Wikipedia, a Wardian case is an early type of terrarium used to protect plants first invented by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791–1868) in the late 1820s.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

Window Gardening and House Plants

The author of “St. Cuthbert’s,” a charming story of Scotch-Canadian life, says:

“I do contend that the watering can and the spade and the pruning knife are a means of grace.”

My contention may not take that form, but I know, and am persuaded by actual and personal experience and by wide and close observation, that the care of green and growing things is a cure of ennui and a wholesome diversion of thought from the perplexities and vexations which make workaday life a weariness to flesh and spirit.

I hope each of my readers has made acquaintance at one time or another with “Picciola.” For those who have not read the book, in the original French or in translations I will say that it is a biography of a plant that sprang up between the stones in the courtyard of a prison, in which was confined a nobleman accused of conspiracy against the government. His study of the flower saved him from madness and suicide. Bunner tells of the mission to the “little sick child in the basement,” of

The pot of mignonette
In the attic window set.

The ministry of flowers is an exhaustless theme. It is appreciated in all its fullness and beauty by none who do not love to plant, tend and watch the making of these—God’s angels of healing and His teachers in the knowledge of the “real things” which have to do with the invisible and the eternal.

The owners of winter gardens and conservatories that are tended by salaried gardeners and visited by the nominal possessors are not learners in our school. I et hundred of letters of inquiry touching the cultivation of house plants, but they do not come from rich women or from girls who can afford to buy cut flowers whenever they like. My correspondents wish to know how to make house plants grow and bloom in living rooms in the dining room that looks out upon an apartment court; in the family parlor that has a sunny exposure, and, most pathetic of all, how to set a window shelf of ferns, palms, tradescantia and ivies n the sight of a shut-in, whose glimpses of the outer world of life and light are confined to the section—sometimes a mere slice—of wintry sky discernible through her window.

For my army of shut-ins, and for the housemother tied to the toilful routine of domestic tasks from year’s end to year’s end, I am telling the story of my own window gardening and the dear Wardian case, alias fernery, now in the 30th year of beneficent life.

It took me some years to find out the disabilities of house-plants—in other words, how not to do it. During one happy winter spent in my country house I had hyacinths in fragrant bloom before Easter, big fluffy globose chrysanthemums early in December and roses all winter. By inclosing a southern veranda with glass and running steam pipes and radiators into the improvised conservatory we secured these treasures and a glory of geranium bloom, which were the admiration of visitors and a continual joy to ourselves. The suburbanite may do this at a comparatively small outlay of money and time. A bay window that has a southern exposure, freedom from gas light and hot-air furnaces, together with loving and intelligent care, are all that are needed to insure success.

In the city the chief foe to budding and blossoming is the fine, impalpable black dust that coats our books, furniture, food and skins, the stuff we draw into our lungs with every breath, which changes new-fallen snow to gray and black within a day after it has left the sky.

Began with Greenery.

The impossibility of keeping my plants free from it, and the certainty that it clogs the forming buds into barrenness, first led me to confine my window-gardening to greenery alone. Ferns of all sorts thrive even in sunless windows. Geraniums grow and make leaves, but they do not blossom. I have brought freesias and hyacinths into flower, but the result was sickly miniatures of the real blooms that made my heart ache.

Early in the autumn I set—in a window that gets none but reflected sunshine for nine months of the year—a pot of asparagus fern. It took kindly to the situation, and by November—when the picture that heads this page was taken—it made a graceful loop upon itself (encouraged by me) of “lacy” foliations, the growth of which was a ceaseless joy. As I write, the loop is thick with verdure and tall shoots have darted up from the roots that rival the parent stock. Once a week the pot is set in the bath tub and water is run from both faucets up to the top of the pot, so that it gently overflows the surface of the earth. The whole plant is prayed from a watering pot until all the dust is washed off and the foliage drips with moisture. I then draw off the water, leaving the pot in the tub for half an hour. Beside the tall-looped fern stand a broad, low pot of asparagus vetch that was a wee plant when I brought it indoors. It is now a living fountain of delicate, feathery verdure and grows by the hour. Pots of other and broader-leaved ferns flank the asparagus varieties. All have the weekly bath, and should the earth become very dry, intermediate sprinklings. The rooms are steam-heated and lighted by electricity and lamps.

The Wardian case (named for the inventor) was a Christmas gift to me 30 years back. The frame is of black walnut; it is mounted upon stout and easy-running casters; the glass top is hinged. In the autumn the water-tight bottom is covered with broken pottery three inches deep. Upon this substratum are spread four inches of good mould. I get from the country a store of wildings, principally ferns; but partridge berries and other low-creeping plants work in well. They are set out in the earth, wood mosses are snugly packed about them to make them feel at home and they are left to grow.

All winter long they get the reflected sunlight. If the sun shone directly upon the glass it would be necessary to raise the top of the fernery, or to cover it with a cloth. The hot rays would scald the tender things within. In the center is a Jerusalem cherry three begemmed with scarlet fruit. It has held its own all winter, and gives a gorgeous touch of color to the jungle below—a jungle which has been preacher, companion and solace to me for months.

Each morning the cover is propped open for an hour, and the air is changed by five minutes’ vigorous fanning. Once a week the plants are sprayed with tepid water.

The beauties require no other care. And how they grow! Tradescantia runs riot over the moss; from roots of the hardy ferns I every day descry soft gray-green upstarts like shepherd’s crooks or bishop’s croziers, emulous to reach the light. Little anonymous shoots, that would be weeds in their native wood—each of which is a “picciola” to me—peep up daily from the kindly moss beds. Here and there a souvenir ivy, brought from storied places overseas, nestles and gleams contentedly—all growing toward the light!

At Christmas I had a simpler and much smaller fernery built upon the sample principle as the Wardian, as a gift to a small granddaughter, whose loving admiration for mine is almost painful to behold. It is made of four panes of glass set in a wooden frame; the bottom is of zinc; the cover is hinged. A cheap affair, but no casket of jewels could afford so much pure pleasure as the tiny girl extracts from it.

When summer comes the contents may be removed to some shady corner and left to rest until mid-October.

On very cold nights, if the room in which the fernery stand be a bed-chamber, and the windows must be left open, a thick rug thrown over the closed case will be all that is needed to guard the plants from injury.

May I suggest to one who would brighten the loneliness of the bedridden woman or crippled child the gift of an indoor garden, such as I have described? In the sickroom it may stand in summer as in winter. And the glass makes it absolutely harmless in cases where growing plants would be forbidden by physicians.

If I linger over the story of what my window gardens and the conservatory in petto are to me it is because I owe so much to both that I have a heart-thrill at the mention of either. The Wardian case is to me a garden of sweets, a cabinet of memories, a reliquary, such as our forbears used to stock with rare and precious mementos.

In the far corner lurks a bit of climbing vine I picked from the mossy wall of the garden about Dove Cote cottage, the home of Wordsworth in Grasmere. A trail of ivy sprang from a spray that had crept into the open window of the little church, under the chancel of which gentle George Herbert lies, awaiting the resurrection of the just and the crown of them who true many to righteousness. The spreading Jerusalem cherry tree is in the successor of one that grew in the same place that Christmas morning 30 years agone, when the fernery first greeted my enraptured sight. Tradescantia and variegated geraniums were taken from the Sunnybank greenhouse on the southern slope, overlooking the hill-girt lake, one bland day in October. Distant mountains and nearer hills were veiled in blue haziness—Bryant’s “smoky light.”

The sound of dropping nuts was head
Through all the woods was still.

and in a leafless apple tree a belated song sparrow was thrilling a farewell to summer. English Robert, who has tended my shrubs and flowers for ten years with paternal affection, selected and potted ivy, and silver geranium, and sundry other lowly garden darlings he warranted to thrive under glass. He had ready maiden-hair fern and mosses brought from the woods. It is always a wrench to the heartstrings to leave our country home for city quarters. The faithful fellow comprehends, as I can never tell him, the consolation wrapped up tenderly and packed away carefully in the great box he expresses to town by the train that takes me back to miles of brick and mortar.

My children smile and visitors marvel when I am detected hanging above the opened fernery and loitering about the window shelf, noting the appearance of new leaves, the budding of geraniums and cyclamen. These last are among the very few plants that bloom in the reflected sunshine. It was a triumph of faith over science when, in defiance of florist and botanist, I set a clump of tailing arbutus in the “Wardian” four years ago and coaxed it into bloom in early march. The scarlet globes on the cherry tree will give place to white flowers by and by.

On the windowsill stand two recent acquisitions—gifts from a dear kinswoman and fellow-flower lover in my far Southern home. They are an exotic evergreen—a Norfolk island pine, symmetrical and erect—and a North Carolina holly that bears tiny white flowers of delicate and exquisite fragrance.

I envy no millionaire his glasshouses and graperies while my miniature parterre smiles up into loving eyes.

Marion Harland

Family Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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