Chrysanthemums Illustrated

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.

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Matt’s Granny checks her blooms. We’re not sure when this photo was taken, though probably late 1990s/early 2000s.

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Black florest’s buckets filled the house in the autumn

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.

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Grampy’s chrysanths are coming into bloom this week

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.

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Chrysanthemums Illustrated (1967)

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With practice, maybe I can grow these?

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.

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Storing the rootstock over winter, no creosote allowed.

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.

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Protecting the blooms from the weather, 1960s-style

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.

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At the show. Note that this seems to be an entirely male activity!

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.

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Pumpkin-shades sit alongside Grampy’s yellow flowers

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Burnished copper to take us into autumn

Chrysanthemum care

Today is a welcome respite from all the Christmas stress festivities. Presents are wrapped, the gammon is simmering (which admittedly is Christmas-related, but hardly difficult) and the TV is most-decidedly switched off. By some kind of miracle, this morning was gloriously sunshiney and so I headed to the allotment for an urgent task: chrysanthemum care.

Some background is needed here. Matt’s Granny and Grampy, now in their mid-90s, used to run a literal cottage industry growing and selling chrysanthemums. Their garden was heaving with them and come harvest-time the living room (so I am told) was filled with black florestry buckets overflowing with blooms. Apparently, when Matt was a boy, his job was to help put paper bags over growing buds to protect the saucer-sized flowers from the elements.

Knowledge of chrysanthemums is the Hunter/Foster-family legacy. It’s shaped Matt’s upbringing in much the same way that knowledge of coal and how-to-light-a-fire has shaped mine (my Dad and his father before him were in the coal trade).

So when Grampy heard that I had an interest in growing my own, he very generously offered a load of plants out of his garden. We arrived home yesterday with a tray full of soil, root and twigs, and strict-instructions for what to do with them.

The pressure is on.

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From October this year. In 2016 I’d like a whole lot more of this!

My chrysanths this year were brilliantly colourful, but I think slightly lacking in blooms. Next year I’d like to grow more and also see if I can extend their season, maybe bringing some indoors to protect them from the Birmingham winds.

Grampy told me that I have to dig up the faded plants, trim the stem down to a few inches, and put them in a shallow tray filled with compost. They will stay thus confined, in the greenhouse, until they start to shoot in the spring at which point we will take cuttings. Any signs of frost and they need covering with fleece.

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Grampy’s plants, trimmed and tray-ed

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They’ll over-winter in the greenhouse, ready for cuttings in the spring

I feel genuine pressure at being primary care-giver for these important plants – it’s a bit like being asked to cook for a really really good chef. Let’s hope we don’t let Grampy down.

Also on the allotment: Harvesting mustard spinach, mizuna, chicory, spinach, chard, leeks, parsnips.