Dear Miss Floribunda,
It is autumn and the nurseries, supermarkets, and roadside stands are taunting me with flowering chrysanthemum plants in absolutely thrilling colors. I don’t buy them any longer because they never make it through the winter. You once wrote that chrysanthemums should be planted in the spring but that’s not when I see them on sale.
You also have offered alternatives in the past and I have planted some of them but it’s not the same to me. The asters have gotten too leggy for my taste and the dahlias have to be dug up before hard frost, which is more work than I really want to do. There is a slope on the western side of my house that I would love to cover with chrysanthemums, envisioning something like a patchwork quilt or a tapestry.
My family, who knows my sorry track record, has told me my vision is just a hallucination. Is it really an impossible dream?
Dreamer on Decatur Street
Your dream isn’t really impossible, but you need a lot of practical information to make it a reality. As infatuated with mums as you are, you might consider joining a club of kindred chrysanthemum lovers, such as the Chesapeake Chrysanthemum Society or the Potomac Chrysanthemum Society. You could obtain young chrysanthemum plants through the joint orders these clubs send to wholesalers in the spring. And of course you would learn all the dos and don’ts of chrysanthemum culture from other club members.
I asked our own chrysanthemum expert in the Hyattsville Horticultural Society, Capability Green, for her advice. She also falls under the spell of autumn displays on sale every October, and she goes right ahead and buys whatever she likes. Some of the mums are seasonal novelties to be enjoyed temporarily and are not meant to be planted outside as perennials. Others can overwinter inside and be planted in the spring after the danger of frost is past. In fact, once their root systems are well established, many varieties are quite cold hardy. The Chinese traditionally prized mums as symbols of “fortitude in adversity.”
The key is to find a good nook for the plants indoors and to keep an eye on them, watering neither too much nor too little. Some people put them in a cool dark spot in a root cellar or basement after one good watering and let them go dormant till spring. Capability keeps her mums where they get sunlight but are neither over-heated or frost-bitten (a south-facing attic window is good) and continues with moderate watering but no feeding all winter. She also advises you to mulch them well in the autumn after you plant them, to cut them back the following May, and to divide them every three to five years. She likes your tapestry/patchwork idea and wants you to know that mums root easily from softwood cuttings in summer and once they mature in pots, you can fill in the bare spots in your patchwork with them when older plants die.
Dare I say that I think you are a bit unfair to asters? They too can be cut back, but if you don’t want to bother with that, you can obtain dwarf varieties that don’t get above two feet high. Because they are just about the best source of autumn nectar for butterflies, I hope you won’t discard those you have, even if you don’t wish to include them in the floral tapestry you plan on your western slope. I must agree that their twilit color spectrum is less flamboyantly autumnal than that of chrysanthemums, whose colors you describe as “absolutely thrilling.” Your dream sounds glorious, so follow it!
The next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society will take place Saturday, November 22 at 10 AM. The venue is the Hyattsville Municipal Building at 4310 Gallatin St.