Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Where are the Chrysanthemums?

Every year about this time I mourn the absence of old-fashioned garden chrysanthemums.   At one moment in time chrysanthemums as they had been disappeared, to be replaced by a ubiquitous sea of puffy yellow, russet and mauve supermarket mums.  Precisely alike, totally lacking in character, they pop up everywhere.  At three for $15 or thereabouts, you will see them at every house, on every scrap of lawn, or flanking every driveway… a limitless supply of uniformity.

Supermarket Chrysanthemums

Admittedly, the large and varied chrysanthemum family of spiders, quill and spoons are pretty labor-intensive, appealing to only the most dedicated gardeners.  Once installed in your perennial bed, chrysanthemums cannot be left alone and be expected to flourish from year to year.  Each spring they must be dug and divided, the center of the plant discarded along with the old root system, and the vigorous side shoots and their roots retained and replanted. 

You’ll wind up with a small plant, but it will shoot up at a healthy rate during the long growing season.  When the first shoots reach three to four inches, usually by May, the main stem is established well enough to start shaping the plant.  Pinch back the main stem to two or three leaves.  Each subsequent leaf stem gets pinched back to two good leaves.  This continues with each “break” (the new growth) until mid-July when pinching stops.

Single Mum

You must provide support by stout stakes, as the constant pinching produces big flowers heads.  You must also remember to side-dress monthly, as they are heavy feeders. 

Why do all this?  The flower heads are unparalleled in their beauty, and arrive at a time when virtually everything else in the garden is over.  The family is large, and the characteristics of the individual flowers vary widely.  Chrysanthemum flowers are composed of many individual rays or florets, and there are significant differences within the family. 

Spider Mum

The spider mums are distinguished by long, tubular rays, some of which grow longer than the rest and appear to be reaching out to catch you in their web.  Sometimes the tips are twisted or hooked, increasing the spider-like appearance. 

The single and semi-double mums are the ones you might still  find for sale in local nurseries at reasonable prices.  The spoons are similar to the semi-doubles, except that the individual tips of the rays are spoon-shaped.  They have an open center, but their cousins the quills do not; their florets are straight and tubular, with open ends.
Quill Mum

The giant “football” mums look like cheerleaders’ pompoms.  Technically, they are called irregular incurves.  The centers are fully closed, the florets curve inward, and the bottom edge has a slightly skirted effect.

Football Mum

Chrysanthemums are not easy to finds these days.  The 1970 catalog of White Flower Farms Nursery in Litchfield, Connecticut sold twenty decorative mums, three pompoms, three spiders and five spoons. In 2014, none.  The big perennial catalogs no longer supply chrysanthemums, but you can find sources and a useful handbook on the National Chrysanthemum Society’s website www.mums.org.

Chrysanthemums have a distinguished history.  The Chinese and Japanese have been growing them for over 3,000 years and you can see representations of mums in their textiles, screens and ceramics.  Visiting Buddhist monks brought the chrysanthemum from China to Japan, and the Japanese were enchanted with this flower, which they saw as a symbol of the sun.  It was so beloved of the early Emperors that the single chrysanthemum became the Emperor’s personal symbol, and he ruled from the chrysanthemum throne.  Chrysanthemum Day in Japan is still a significant festival event.
Japanese Textile

Although widely popular in the United States, in most of Europe chrysanthemums are funeral flowers.  In Italy, they are so closely associated with death that they are never used in a festive or celebratory context.  

In recent years, dahlias seem to have replaced chrysanthemums as the big, bold, showy fall addition to the garden.  They require a somewhat elaborate procedure if you wish to keep them from year to year.   To carry them through the winter, you have to let the first frost blacken the foliage.  Then dig them up, leaving two inches of stem.  Discard the damaged tubers, wash the good ones and put them in the sun to dry, turning them occasionally.  Each tuber, when thoroughly dry, then goes in its own plastic bag.  It’s closed tightly and stored in a cool, dark basement until spring.

A Selection Of Dahlias

I have not been successful at this, and I discard dahlias after the last frost and start with new tubers in the spring.  If you can’t find a good source for chrysanthemums try dahlias, but they are a poor substitute.  Having travelled infrequently enough to have my dreams intact, I believe that in some small corner of England there are still gardeners preparing their prize-winning chrysanthemums for the coming Fair.

Monday, September 1, 2014

September Notes

        September is the last month to enjoy the garden.  Annuals and asters have taken center stage.  Roses and some perennials are in the midst of their second bloom.   It’s almost the end of the picnic season.  Mosquitos are replaced by bumblebees, and picnics become an exercise in evasion. 
Cosmos and Cleome

The color combinations so carefully planned for spring and summer are now giving way to the overall anticipation of autumn, when the trees turn russet, gold and brown.  Even the deep reds and purples which seemed harsh in spring look fine in September.

Enjoy the particular clarity of the September light.  You can ignore a certain disorder in the garden, unacceptable in spring, but the norm in September. Untidiness is forgivable in September, because by next month the ferocious pace of bulb planting will be underway, and once that is complete the garden must be put to bed.  But for the time being enjoy September; it can be the most restful month in the garden, or the best month for some hard work.  It’s your call.

Week One
This is a good time to shop, as the end-of-year sales at nurseries will be in full swing.  While nurseries can easily hold over larger trees and shrubs until next spring, to carry smaller materials over the winter becomes costly.

City gardens are perfect for small bulbs.  Try the smaller members of the daffodil family, the cyclamineus and jonquillas.  Don’t forget snowdrops, crocus spring and fall, and colchicums.

Each year at this time I wish I had a Clematis paniculata, the autumn-blooming cascade of starry white flowers covering everything in sight.
Sweet autumn clematis

September is a good time to order clematis, for they are rarely shipped after mid-October.  If you plant clematis in the fall, they will get off to a robust spring start and you will surely have blooms next summer.  If planted next spring, you are likely to get only foliage.

Week Two
Most perennials will welcome division now, but some definitely will not. These include phlox, Shasta daisies, and Siberian and Japanese iris.  Don’t even try.

The Japanese anemone is the queen of the fall garden.  Starting from a clump of basal leaves it will grow to three feet bearing several weeks of white or pink silver-dollar size flowers. 

Other September bloomers are False Dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana), Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia trilobum), Bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonsis), a low-growing blue shrub better treated as a perennial, Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), and Rubeckia ‘Henry Eiler' (R. subtomentosa). 
Rudbeckia 'Henry Eiler'

If rainfall is adequate, little watering will be needed from now on.  The exception is new plantings and of course roof gardens which will need watering right up to hard frost.

Bring in pots of amaryllis that have been summering indoors.

Week Three
Trim long stems of perennial vines and tie up or train as you like.

Cut back iris foliage to three inches

Don’t let phlox go to seed or they will self sow, reverting to their original magenta and the new seedlings will crowd out your carefully cultivated varieties. 

Week Four
Last call to bring the house plants indoors.

Pull out vegetable plants when all the crops have been gathered and plant a winter cover crop.  Winter rye or small grains are good in our region.

Fertilize lawns and sow seeds in thin or worn areas.

You can still plant perennials, but they will have to be protected against the winter’s alternate freezing and thawing.  More on that in November.

Start cutting back perennials.  You can compost all but the leaves and stems of the peonies.  These you must discard or burn.

This is the best time to plant daffodils, although almost everyone waits at least until October, and often drag their feet into November.  Start early, and give yourself a gift for 2015.
Next Spring's Daffodils