How not to grow Chrysanthemums for exhibition  by  Al Dormer (Canada)

(A tongue in cheek look at my first efforts).

As a first year novice embarking on the great adventure of growing our favorite cultivar, I was excited at the prospect of all those lovely blooms adding beauty and colour to my garden. In anticipation of this I suggested to Joan that we buy a big new sideboard to rest all the cups and medals on. No dice! She wants a dishwasher instead.

"only the very best ..."
First job was to obtain suitable stools for propagating. A few quick phone calls followed by a visit to the donor gave me plenty of stock. Of course, each donor to my collection gave the “very best variety” each one guaranteed to win first prize. So where do I start? What varieties do I grow? Not wanting to miss out on any possible prizewinner I decided to grow them all.

All the stools were placed in the greenhouse on the staging and fed a little ground heat then sprayed with tepid water just as the book said. Within a very short time I was taking cuttings galore, each one carefully marked and placed according to its type. They are lavished with tender loving care. (Joan wonders why she doesn’t get the same TLC). Soon the greenhouse is full of cuttings with no room left for my other plants. What to do? I have it. At one of the club meetings, One member explains the benefits and method of building a cold frame, so I set to work to build one. There is nothing like working out in the garden up to the knees in snow in sub zero weather to keep the blood circulating. All the poor relation plants are moved into the frame and the greenhouse is given over completely to the chrysanths. Still no room as the cuttings keep coming. Invade the house! I commandeer the laundry room for the overspill. Joan is not impressed.

She wisely points out that when all the plants reach maturity, I’ll need to rent the back forty from the local farmer. Anyway I will deal with that problem later. The efforts are beginning to take their toll on my health as I am constantly running back and forth from the greenhouse at all times of the day and night to administer to my beloved plants. (Joan thinks I have a bottle stashed in there).

"a full time job ..."
Record keeping I am told is of the utmost importance. So I prepare my computer by adding another ten gigabytes just in case, invest in the very latest software and start to record my activities. All the cuttings are labeled and numbered and the record reflects the rooting date number of the cutting with the name together when it was moved to another location and fed and watered etc. The plants grow bigger. I need to take a few days off work to catch up. The watering job is becoming a full time occupation. There are no volunteers in the household for this task so I do that as well. After the plants are watered I usually take a drink of water as well; I generally put a little scotch in it first to kill any germs.

"manure and more manure ..."
Advice on feeding was freely given to me and the list of fertilizers bought seemed endless. I managed to obtain horse manure, cow manure, sheep manure, Pigeon manure and chicken manure. I am told by one old expert grower that the very best manure comes from rocking horses but to date I’ve had no luck on that one.  Bonemeal, superphosphate, hydrated lime together with plant food from 1 .1. 1. To 99. 99. 99 were all shipped in ready for the growing season. (Plant Products promised to open a branch in Durham Region if I continue to spend at the same rate next year).  Following directions on the container which is always different from what I’m told, the plants are fed with all the different ingredients and I stand back in anticipation of beanstalk like growth shooting out of my garden.  Seeking assurances that everything is going fine I ask around if I have missed anything

 “Have you given a top dressing of nitrogen yet?” one expert asks me. “Er no” I reply, meaning to remedy that situation by a visit to the local co-op on my way home. The nitrogen is duly scattered on the pots and on beds ready for planting out.

"Expert advice?"
The critical time is here at last “What are the stopping dates?” Again I ask around the experts and receive all kinds of answers. The best one being “I always stop ninety minutes after the first rainfall following the first full moon after Easter Sunday”. The most confusing explanation is “do it when you like”. It’s planting out time at last. All the frost has gone the days are now warmer and longer. I start to plant out. I chose what I consider to be the best plants and put these in pots to grow for exhibition. The rest go in the ground except that as Joan predicted I have run out of ground. I decide to rotor till a new patch of ground from the lawn. A violent argument ensues with Joan opposed to any lawn encroachment. My son Steven comes out on my side and his weight carries the day. He wants me to double the size of the new flowerbed. This makes me think that he is becoming interested in my hobby but he says no its just less grass for him to cut. The crafty so and so!

"Can't do right for doing wrong ..."
Soon after the plants put in the open I notice most of them going a dark brown colour. Panic sets in and much midnight oil is burnt reading to find what this disease is. No luck, the plants are wilting and going dark brown. In desperation I rip a few cultivars from the ground and scuttle off to Scarborough to request an audience with one of the great ones who knows EVERTHING about Chrysanthemums. One look and the verdict is in. “You have burnt them all,” he says. “Too much nitrogen” I am shattered, I can’t do right for doing wrong I rush home and dig all the plants up and remove the soil to replace it with fresh. My next door neighbor asks me if I am digging for buried treasure. I begin to think I should have chosen a less stressful hobby like shark baiting or bungie jumping. After a few days-hard work the job is done and I realize that I have solved a major problem, I won’t need the back forty acres after all! Time now to update my notes and I switch on my computer. Inadvertently press the wrong key and send my precious records to oblivion. Not to worry, I still have my notebooks tucked away in the greenhouse. I finally locate them under the plant pot to find the book all mildewed and wet and indecipherable. Thoughts of changing my hobby reoccur. However “its an ill wind” so they say. I don’t have to record all the mistakes that I have made.

"Keep the bugs clean!"
It is now the middle of June, the plants are growing nicely all have been stopped and are shooting up. Time to stake and move those in pots to larger pots. Suprisingly most of the plants that were burnt are showing fresh growth. This is very encouraging however I don’t have much room left so I give a few plants to my friend who sticks them in an old laundry tub full of soil and leaves them to fend for them selves. Some of the varieties need a second stop off the first crown bud. I am at a loss as what to do, as most of mine don’t have even a first crown bud! I take the bull by the horns and stop the lot again. By the end of July all the plants are growing strongly with lots of side shoots and small buds appearing. I am very diligent in my control of pests and spend a few hours each day picking them off or spraying. I cannot use any toxins at all because my daughter is a conservationist and won’t allow it. So I use soap and water, it does not kill the bugs but I have the cleanest insects in the Durham Region. I am a little more careful now when I feed them and water sparingly. The weather is hot and I have no shade for the crops so I attempt to rig up a temporary shelter. This great until the wind blew it down and ruined a number of plants. (My crop is diminishing on a regular basis). So I abandon the idea and trust to nature.

Now the show dates are fast approaching and I don’t have anything with a bloom on it.

"The final straw ..."
All my contemporaries have magnificent blooms just waiting to be judged. The shows come and go and all the usual winners win again and I don’t have a bloom in sight, very discouraging. I think of all the reasons why and blame the loss of my records, the greenhouse is too small, too much feeding, too much TLC, the bank manager wouldn’t advance a loan and all kinds of other reasons too numerous to mention here. To make matters worse my dahlias are not doing too well either. (That’s another story). Word must have spread about my plight and I get an offer from a contractor to concrete over my whole garden, I take this offer very seriously. The final straw is when I visit my friend to whom I had given plants, to find the most glorious blooms growing in the laundry tub. He is very pleased with them and is convinced that I have hundreds just like them at home. He wants to come and see them. I discourage him and very quickly change the subject.

"Success at last!"
November comes around, and suddenly my flowerbeds are sporting the most glorious blooms. I am overwhelmed at the sight. Passers by stop and admire the view a few ask for cuttings. There is a steady stream of neighbors coming for cut flowers. All think that I am a master gardener. I haven’t the heart to tell them that they should have flowered two months ago.

The lessons learnt (and there were many) I hope will stand me in good stead for future years growing and I am looking forward to the coming season. The biggest problem facing me right now is teaching the plants to tell the time that I may have blooms in time for the shows! 

 Reproduced with permission of Al Dormer, November 2003

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Last updated on 05 November, 2003