Most of us don't think of chrysanthemums as perennials, but that is exactly what they are, and one of the first we Californians grew. We know them as potted gift plants and as cut flowers from the florist, but not as tough, easy-to-grow garden plants.
October and November are their season and a good time to become reacquainted. One of the best places to do so is Sunnyslope Gardens, Southern California's center for chrysanthemums for 55 years.
Philip Ishizu worries that what he grows is too seasonal, but what a season it is. From this weekend until Thanksgiving, the nursery is a riot of color as one kind of chrysanthemum after another flowers.
There are pots of bushy chrysanthemums that can be popped in the ground in full flower.
There are spectacular cascading chrysanthemums that spill several feet out of their containers like waterfalls of flowers, which should brighten any balcony.
And, there are the rows of exhibition mums that aren't for sale just now, but can be ordered and grown to produce the flashiest of cut flowers.
The potted mums at Sunnyslope and at other nurseries right now are the best garden plants and with very little effort they can become permanent parts of the flower bed. Unlike the potted mums found at other times of the year, these are flowering when they should. At other times, they have been "forced"--brought into bloom early.
Forced mums received as gifts or bought at florists can also be turned into garden plants. Ishizu told us the secret: After they finish flowering, cut off the flowers and some of the stem, but leave some green leaves until sprouts appear around the base. Then cut the old flowering stems off completely.
These sprouts are the proof that mums are really perennials. They are the replacements, growing from creeping underground rhizomes--next year's plants.
In early spring, they can be dug up, divided and planted, and each will make a new chrysanthemum. Or, they can be left to grow where they are and will make a big clump.
The plants you buy at this time of the year follow the same cycle--after they finish flowering, cut them back; in the spring divide them, or just let them regrow, though in time they must be divided or they will make poor plants.
Most of the chrysanthemums you buy in pots will grow to three or four feet high--and will probably need staking--if you don't pinch the growing tips several times during spring and summer to make them bushier. "Pinching" means cutting off the very tip of the stem, with shears or your thumb and forefinger. The gardener in a hurry can get around pinching by simply cutting the plant back to within six or eight inches of the ground in July, from which it will regrow and branch.
One garden-type mum worth noting at Sunnyslope is the English variety "Morning Star," which is unusual in that it requires no pinching to become a perfectly round bush under two feet tall.
If there is a problem with mums in the garden, it is that they occupy space for much of the year, but flower only in fall. The flip side of this is that little else flowers so profusely in October and November.
One solution is to dig them up after they flower and replant them somewhere out of the way until spring, when they can be divided and planted back in the flower bed. This lets you grow something else in their place all winter and spring--bulbs for instance.
Ishizu cautions that the plants shouldn't be overwatered in winter when they are nearly dormant, but during the rest of the year, they are tough plants and can take a lot of mistreatment.
"They are weeds," he says, "like all composites, and very easy to grow. Put them in the ground and jump back!"
Growing the cascading types is not so easy, but the Sunnyslope catalogue shows how. In full flower, as they are right now, they are an incredible bargain at $25. In fact, those about to go over the hill but good for another week or so are only half that.
The exhibition types are what chrysanthemum fanciers grow to show in competition, but they are also gorgeous cut flowers. There is an almost infinite variety to choose from--more than a dozen official categories--including some with petals rolled up into narrow cylinders, called spiders. If you ask Ishizu for his personal favorite, he is reluctant to commit, but finally says it would be one of the spiders or the reflexes, mums with petals that curve gracefully back from the center.
To grow these exotic mums, you must first order the cuttings. As you come in the nursery, order forms and pencils are handy and the rows of flowers have a tag on each with a name or a number. The tag says: "This is a SAMPLE PLANT of rooted cuttings sold between April and July." The rooted cuttings are sent out in spring and cost between 75 cents and a couple of dollars, depending on how new they are.