Mum’s the word

Mum’s the word

There’s a nip in the air that tells you it’s time to get going with your winter garden. The first plant that welcomes the cold with gusto is the chrysanthemum. There’s nothing shy about this flower that was perhaps first grown in China. There’s an entire city there named after the flower: Ju Xian means ‘chrysanthemum city’.

We gather that the name, like most others, comes from two Greek words: ‘chrysos’, meaning golden, and ‘anthemon’, a flower. Well, chrysanthe are not just golden any longer. They are white, yellow, golden, pink, mauve, maroon and even bronze.

The best thing about chrysanthemums is that they are not too difficult to grow. I can say this in spite of the disappointment we suffered years ago, with our first chrysanthemums. But, no one had told me what I now know.

For a while now, the nurseries have been ready with their two-inch chrysanthemum plants in one-inch individual pots. Before you bring them home, prepare the soil. The wait will reap huge harvests.

Chrysanthemums do well in rich, well-drained soil. Work in organic matter such as thoroughly composted leaves to give the earth body. This layer of soil should be at least six to eight inches deep. When you pick up the plants, ask the nursery man for its variety (low-growing or tall) and for the distance you need to plant the seedlings in. Most plants need to be kept 18-24 inches apart. Some may want more space. Stand for five to seven days. If you’re preparing tubs, remember to decide now where to place them. Chrysanthemums love at least four to six hours of full sun.

Select the greener plants over ones that show the trauma of being in the nursery. Once home, let the plants rest for a day. After all, they’re tiny! Then, tuck them into their new homes.

Water well, firm the soil around the roots to make sure no air dries them out, and stand them away from the sun for three days. As they grow, pack in a couple of inches of mulch or toppings (it could be clipped grass or wood shavings or just well-aged organic matter).

Once the shoots burst forth, practice your pinching skills. The old saying about having to be cruel to be kind, works here. When someone told us to pinch our chrysanthemums that first year, we said, “Ouch!" The result was long, limp stems that looked sad and produced virtually no flowers. The aphids (small bug) loved them.

Well, pinching is what gives you bushy chrysanthemums. Begin when the plant is about six inches high: Pinch about one inch of the top off, and watch the plant throw side shoots in retaliation. Repeat every two weeks till the buds appear. Stake the plants as the shoots spread, since this keeps them from tickling the ground and picking up pests.

If you study chrysanthemum roots, you’ll know why they don’t like to drown in water. The roots aren’t too robust, so go easy on watering. Robust sun and optimal watering also keep the plant healthy. If one plant begins to look ill, remove and burn the diseased leaves, before it spreads to your other plants. Aphids love chrysanthemums, so watch your plants regularly and remove the aphids as soon as you spot them.

If all this sounds daunting, don’t worry. Chrysanthemums are sturdy plants. They’re certainly not sentimental sissies. Just a little care, and you can sit back and watch them do a hi-there-winter dance. And then, you can bring the flower-studded pots indoors for a double bonus: NASA has found that chrysanthemums reduce indoor pollution.