Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 14 - Orchards in Cheapside

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AND why not? We stall-feed milch cows in upper stories of London houses, bring deep-sea fishes and zoophytes under inspection in our drawing-rooms, and grow choice ferns in domestic glass-cases, and we contend it is quite as easy to pick our own fruit from our own trees in the centre of the city as from the south-peach wall of some snug country house. Our reader, of course, is incredulous, but we mean what we say, and hope, before we have done, to convince him that we speak the words of truth and soberness. The cultivation of fruit-trees in pots in hot-houses has long been practised by nurserymen in this country, in the same manner as grapes are cultivated; this process is necessarily expensive, and entails the necessity of employing highly-skilled gardeners. Mr. Rivers, of Sawbridgeworth, in Hertfordshire, was the first, however, we believe, who proposed to simplify the growing of rare fruits — such as the peach, nectarine, and apricot — so as to render their culture within the means and knowledge of persons of very moderate incomes. To grow peaches at the cost of two shillings a-piece has never been a difficulty; to grow them at one penny a-piece is a triumph, and that he has taught us all to do. In this [-144-] country the production of the rare stone fruits out of doors has always been a lottery. We rejoice greatly at seeing our walls one sheet of blossom in early spring; and then comes a day of wet and a nipping frost, as in this very year, and all our hopes are blighted. To afford protection during the few trying weeks of March and April, and to produce a temperature like the dry yet varying atmosphere of the East, the natural home of our finest wall-fruit, without delivering us into the hands of the professed gardener — with his stoves, hot pits, boilers, and other horticultural luxuries, which the rich only can afford — was the desideratum, and that Mr. Rivers has accomplished with what he terms, his "orchard-houses!'
    These are not the elaborate pieces of carpentery-work we meet with in great gardens, but glass houses, constructed so simply that any person of an ingenious turn may construct them for himself; they are nothing more, in fact, than low wooden-sided houses, with a glass roof. As there is no window-framing, planing, mortising, or rebating required, the cost is very inconsiderable. A span-roofed orchard-house, thirty feet long by fourteen feet wide, with a height to the ridge in the middle of eight feet, sloping down to four feet on either side, can be constructed by any carpenter for 27 10s.; smaller lean-to houses for very considerably less: estimates for which our more curious reader, who may feel inclined to make an experiment in home fruit-growing, will find carefully set forth in Mr. Rivers's original little work, "The Orchard- House," published by Longman. One of these houses gives the fruit-grower an atmosphere as nearly as possible resembling the native one of the peach, nectarine, [-145-] and apricot. The glass affords abundance of light through its ample panes, and its protection gives a dry atmosphere, in which the fruit is sure to set and come to maturity; whilst the vigour of the tree is insured by the wide openings or shutters in the opposite side walls, which admit a constant and abundant current of air through the house when it is thought desirable to do so. The atmosphere produced, beds are made, composed of loam and manure, on either side of the sunken central pathway, not for our orchard to grow in but upon. And here begins the singularity of this new method of culture. Anyone who has grown fruit-trees must be aware that their roots are great travellers: they penetrate under the garden-wall, crop up in the gravel path, and penetrate into the old drains; they seek their food, in fact, as the cow does in the meadow, moving from place to place, and, like the cow, they, to a certain extent, exhaust themselves in so doing. Under such circumstances, artificial aid is of little avail, you cannot give nourishment to roots that have run you don't know where; but you can confine the roots and stall-feed them, as we do animals, with a certainty of producing the effect we desire, and this we accomplish by putting our orchards into pots.
    But Pomona has still an infinity to learn. It clearly will not do to allow our fruit-trees to fling about their arms as they do in a wild state; in the orchard-house we have to economize room; there must not be an inch of useless wood. A little time since, small standard trees, about four feet high, were thought to be the best form for the orchard-house, but Mr. Rivers has come to the conclusion that most light and heat is gained by training his [-146-] trees perpendicularly —  in the form of a small cypress — thus a stem, four feet high, supports a large number of short lateral branches, pinched back to five or six fruit-buds. This somewhat formal shape has the great advantage of allowing a large number to be congregated together, and of ripening their fruit better, inasmuch as they are not so much shaded with leaves, as those having straggling branches. And now for the manner of feeding them. The pots in which the roots are encased may be considered the mangers of the tree ; to these nutriment is given in the autumn of every year, in the shape of a topdressing of manure, in addition to which, instead of one hole, three or four are made in the bottom of the pot, to allow the roots to emerge into the rich compost of two-thirds loam and one of manure, forming the border.
    " But," says one reader, "this, after all, is but a roundabout way of making the roots seek mother earth."
    It may appear so, but in reality it is a very different thing. In the first place, the zone of baked clay placed round about the roots, in the shape of the pot, is a good conductor of heat, which highly stimulates the tree. In the second place, the roots, although allowed to strike into the border, are within call; when the branches are pinched back in the spring, these roots also are pruned; thus the vegetation, which otherwise would be apt to run riot and fill the house with useless leaves and wood, is checked at will. To provide still further nourishment to our nurslings, every two years the earth is picked out of each pot, two inches all round, and six inches deep, and fresh compost is rammed into its place.
    Our reader will perhaps smile when he thinks of the [-147-] old grey and mossy orchards of the country, with their tumble-down trees leaning in every direction, and spreading over acres of ground, and hundreds of yards of wall trees being compressed into a little glass-house, and thus made so shockingly tame by the hand of man, that they are forced to depend upon him, like barn-door fowl, for their daily nourishment; but he would smile, and that with delight, to see the town of orchard-houses in Mr. Rivers's nursery, thus filled with obedient trees, and hearing educated crops, such as no open orchard or garden ever dreamed of doing.
    Trees, once potted and placed in the orchard-house; the trouble attendant upon them is not very much, and does not require any special gardening qualifications. A lady might, with advantage, relieve the monotony of making holes upon cambric and sewing them up again, by this delightful occupation. In the winter and spring months protection should be given against frosts by closing the shutters; very little water should be allowed in winter, as the trees require to hibernate, and water acts as a stimulant. About March, pruning should commence, and should continue through the season until the final autumn pruning, when the orchard is once more put to sleep. All these are matters which afford infinite pleasure to all persons of healthy tastes. The trees are all brought microscopically, as it were, before us:~ we watch the buds perfected into the blossom, and an orchard-house of peaches in full bloom is one of the most beautiful sights in horticulture. We watch with still greater interest the gradually ripening fruit. Some one has wittily said, "that the orchard-house is the ladies' billiard table," and certainly [-148-] a more pleasurable occupation for them, could. not well he devised. Peaches, nectarines, or apricots, grown on these pyramidal trees, as they are somewhat incorrectly called, are charmingly ornamental, especially the apricot, the golden fruit of which contrasts beautifully with the green leaves, and what can be more quaint or delicious than to pluck your own fruit from the living tree ornamenting the dessert table? It will be impossible within the limits of this article to attempt any directions with regard to the management of the different fruit that may be grown in these domestic orchards, we would rather refer the reader to Mr. Rivers's little volume for these particulars.
    It is essential to inform our reader, however, that failure, with even the most moderate care, is the exception rather than the rule. We all know how difficult it is to keep the peach and nectarine trees clear of the brown aphis blight which infests them. These and all other kinds of blight, including the red spider, the pest of hothouses, can now be most readily destroyed by the application of the new patent composition, termed Gishurst, a kind of sulphur soap, which readily dissolves in water. One or two applications of this compound clears the most shrivelled leaves of these parasites at once without injuring the points of the tender growing shoots, as the fumes of sulphur or the decoction of tobacco-water are sometimes apt to do. But it may be asked, what is the actual gain resulting from this domestic method of treatment? We reply, in point, size, quantity and quality, the fruit is greatly superior to that given by the old method of wall-training.
    [-149-] An orchard-house thirty feet long and fourteen feet wide will hold, say forty perpendicularly-trained peach-trees, or two rows on either side the centre pathway. These trees in the third year, and henceforth for many years (Mr. Rivers has them still luxuriantly bearing in the twelfth year), will produce two dozen fruit each, or eighty dozen altogether, and by the selection of various sorts and the retardation of the ripening, by the simple expedient of removing some of the trees to an out-of-door north aspect, a. constant succession of this fine fruit may be maintained from August to November. The trees should be placed alternately, thus —  . . . . .  in the double row, so as to give them the utmost amount of light and air By this arrangement the fruit is ripened all round, instead of simply on its outer surface, as it often happens with wall-fruit. Another important matter is to shift the trees now and then — let the pot in the northeast end of the house be taken to the south-west; a little visiting in fresh air is quite as beneficial to trees as to humans; and this locomotive quality is another advantage that orchard-house trees have over those planted against walls.
    Apples, pears, grapes, figs, and oranges, are grown in this manner with the same facility, certainty, and cheapness, as the choicer stone-fruit; and, be it remembered, these orchard-houses are designed for small gardens and for small gardeners. All that is required is a slip of ground open to the sun, just large enough to find room for the orchard-house, which should, if possible, lie southeast by north-west, in order that the full summer sun may, in the course of the day, fall upon all sides of the trees.
    [-150-] There is scarcely a suburban road-side slip of garden which may not find room for its peach-orchard, and where room and expense is an object, a small lean-to house may be erected for a very few pounds, which will ripen its fruit u well as the larger ones. And where there are no gardens, we may make them on the roofs of our houses, as they do in the East. Where there are flat-leads the erection of glass orchard-houses is a simple matter enough. "But what about the blacks?" interposes my reader. Simply this: we must treat the orchard-houses in such situations as we do persons with delicate lungs; we must provide them with respirators ; over all the openings left in the sides for the free circulation of air, woollen netting with three-quarter inch meshes must be stretched. The small fibres projecting from these meshes filter the air in the most surprising manner, as will be evidenced by the soot entangled within them by the time they have done their work for the season. Moderate frosts are intercepted in the same manner. A gentleman living at Bow, in the midst of the smokiest suburb of London, has in this way produced abundant crops of the rarest fruit for many years ; and Mr. Rivers informs us, that he would engage to produce excellent fruit in City orchard-houses, if required to do so. Glass is now so cheap, that we see no reason why the roofs of the houses should not be glazed instead of tiled. By an arrangement of this kind, every citizen may, if he likes, possess his attic garden blooming with fruit, and after it is gathered, with autumn flowers, such as chrysanthemums. Such glass-roofed attics (only far more lofty and expensive ones) already meet the eye in [-151-] an directions, built for the use of photographers. We see no manner of reason why peaches, as well as pictures, may not be produced in such situations; and indeed there is nothing to prevent the construction of very fruitful "Orchards in Cheapside."