You may remember that last year my head was turned by an unlikely amour: the humble chrysanthemum. I loved the way that they burst into colourful life just as the cosmos and sunflowers were dying back, plus they have a whiff of retro nostalgia about them. I mean that quite literally: the smell of chrysanthemums takes me straight back to Hanley Swan churchyard, where my Mum would take me to lay flowers on my grandparents’ grave. The flower of choice was always chrysanths, no doubt because they last so extraordinarily long in the vase.
Then it turned out that Matt’s family had their own connection to these bounteous blooms: Granny and Grampy had their own cottage industry, growing and selling them by the armful from their front garden. Matt grew up surrounded by chrysanthemums and remembers plants covered with paper bags to protect the massive flowers from the rain. His job was to check each paper bag to see when the flowers were ready for picking.
Along with the carnation, a lot of people now loathe chrysanthemums and they have been ridiculously out of fashion for a long time. This for me is a good reason to grow them: it’s the job of us younger gardeners and allotmenters to shake things up a bit and come up with new garden aesthetics. They make a brilliant cut-flower, but whilst Matt’s grandparents encouraged single massive blooms (which were fabulous), I’m taken with the spray-style, mainly because they’re much easier to grow.
This year I have several square metres devoted to the chrysanth, using plants grown from cuttings from both Grampy’s plants and my own. Some of these began flowering at the end of July, which is ridiculously early: perhaps they were thrown off kilter by the warm start to the year. The others are just now coming into bloom and so we have oranges, yellows and burnished copper shades on the allotment.
Last month I came across this book from 1967: Chrysanthemums Illustrated, produced by the National Chrysanthemum Society. It’s full of very serious advice about how to perfect your chrysanths in readiness to win 1st prize at the flower show: they want perfect massive spheres and will go to any lengths to get them. And whilst I won’t be following every rule in the book, there’s a few gems to be learnt from these old-school growers.
The cycle for the chrysanthemum grower begins in autumn. Once the plants have finished flowering in November/December, you have to remove them from the soil, clean them up and trim them back to the bare stem, and then over-winter them in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse. The book recommends using tomato boxes to store the rootstock, noting that “any containers must be absolutely clean and it is advisable to use a wood preservative, but it must be emphasised that this should never be creosote.”
Note: creosote is the smell of my childhood, along with coal dust and roast dinners. Sadly the book is not so chemically aware when it comes to pesticides, recommending that we use DDT to guard against woodlice (this nasty chemical is now banned from use) and all kinds of noxious substances against slugs and other invertebrates.
They advise digging in plenty of organic material into the garden/allotment in the autumn (including hoofs, horn, bonemeal or manure) and then mounding up the soil, much as you would if growing potatoes. The rootstock is encouraged back to life “at about Christmas” with gentle watering, and then cuttings taken from the new shoots. The timing of this is apparently crucial, with each cultivar being slightly different. (This information is useless to me as I failed to note what variety my plants are: I would not make it as a champion grower.) The cuttings are then kept warm using a “mains voltage soil warming wire” set at 6 to 12 volts. A what?! It was presumably much colder in the 1960s.
Once rooted the little plants get potted on, hardened off and eventually planted outside at the start of April. The book, presumably written by a man with a head for straight lines, recommends using canes situated 16 inches apart to mark out a grid of where to plant. Bonemeal sprinkled onto the ground will do “nothing but good”. Suitably staked, supported and mulched, the emerging flower heads must be then protected from the weather with paper bags – just like Granny and Grampy used to do.
The next bit of advice is curious: when picking the flowers, the book recommends bashing the stem with a hammer or pliers before placing it in water. If taking your blooms to the flower show by train, it is recommended that you secure the stems in hurdles and them place them in a wooden crate constructed for the purpose. And once at the show – that’s when you get your tweezers out to perfect your creation.
Now, it’s fair to say that I will never, never, never approach my gardening like this. It’s too stringent, too full of rules and straight lines…and perhaps I am too lazy. But I’ll persevere with my chrysanths and if I can achieve an autumn with a weekly supply of posies like this, I’ll be very happy. Here’s to a new fashion for the great unloved chrysanthemum.