Garden Chrysanthemums

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The Sunday Times - 25th October 2009


Judy Barker

C. 'Spartan Linnet'

By Annie Gatti, (photographs by Marianne Majerus)

Chrysanthemums have an image problem in this country. In China and Japan, where they have been cultivated for 3,000 years, they are revered, but here we have suffered an overload of those year-round, cellophane-wrapped, yellow-centred cut flowers in buckets on petrol-station forecourts. They last well in a vase, but they are stiff and rather soulless, and can be hard to arrange.
In garden centres at this time of year, "charms" fill the tables: neat, cushion-shaped chrysanthemum plants, smothered by blooms in various shades of pink, red or gold. They do a good job of cheering up the entrance to the house for a few weeks, but then have to be thrown on the compost heap, as they won't survive the cold winter temperatures. If you attend flower shows, you'll know about exhibition chrysanths, too. These are displayed in ranks of cut flowers in a bewildering array of shapes and forms, from daisy-like singles, pompons and globe-shaped "incurves" to dome-centred "anemones". They are the result of many hours of cosseting in greenhouses, in an attempt to produce the perfect bloom. There's another group, however, that is easy to grow, will last for months in the garden and gives excellent cut flowers: it's time to embrace the garden "mum". These hardy plants survive outdoors all year, providing splashes of intense colour

C. 'Ruby Raynor'

C. 'Syllabub'

at a time when much of the rest of the garden has turned shades of buff and brown. They come in an array of shapes, colours and forms, and, if you grow a selection of them, you can expect a succession of flower heads from August to December.
Many of them even smell nicer. Instead of the bitter, musty whiff of florists' chrysanths, some have a sweet honey fragrance that adds to the pleasure of the cut flowers when you bring them indoors.
Hardy chrysanthemums used to be a favourite border plant, valued by Gertrude Jekyll and Margery Fish, celebrated revivers of the cottage-garden style in the early decades of the 20th century, for filling that late-autumn gap and providing a supply of cut flowers for the house. Then, gradually, they vanished from gardens and catalogues.
Some varieties were lost when gardens were requisitioned for vegetable-growing during the second world war. Others disappeared because growers were busy producing yet more cultivars in exotic shades and shapes for the show bench. Now, however, hardy garden varieties are making a comeback, thanks to a number of specialist nurseries.
Judy Barker, 66, has also made a substantial contribution to their return to favour. A retired garden-centre employee who has been collecting and trialling them on her allotment in London Colney, Hertfordshire, she has about 200 cultivars in her National Collection - five of which the Royal Horticultural Society has given the Award of Garden Merit (AGM).
Four kinds of chrysanthemum make up the hardy group: Koreans and rubellums, which are classified together, as there are so many crosses, and come in a variety of flower forms, from simple daisies to semi-doubles and doubles; outdoor sprays, which need really good drainage to get through winter; and Japanese pompons, which carry neat button flowers. Barker has all four in her collection, and mixes new varieties with old.
Stepping through the gates to the allotment, it is immediately obvious which are her plots, as they form bands of jewel-like colours amid the greens and yellows of the end-of-season veg. Closer up, the variety in the flower shapes - some with petals that curve backwards, some forming ragged-edged profiles, some with overlapping layers of petals - is revealed. Then there is the difference in habit. Some are solid clumps, such as 'Mrs Jessie Cooper', where the cerise flowers stand proud of the foliage, demanding to be noticed, while varieties such as the brick-red 'Rumpelstilzchen' have a more relaxed, airy look that would sit well in a naturalistic border.
There are also cushion plants with multiple flowers sitting on top, like a colourful beret. Particularly attractive are the autumnal shades - the clarets and rusty golds of two of Barker's AGMs, '
Ruby Mound' and 'Ruby Raynor'.
It was Barker's desire for cut flowers for the house and church that got her going 11 years ago. "I started to look for chrysanthemums, but all I could find were the big balls with the side shoots stripped off. I thought, 'They're not the ones I remember growing in Grandma's garden.'"
She discovered a few nurseries that were breeding the old-fashioned ones and acquired some more from plant exchanges. Soon, people were offering her clumps that had survived for 30 or 40 years in their gardens. 'Perry's Peach', for example, a peachy-pink single, was discovered in an old garden in Whitby, North Yorkshire, by a couple who ran a nursery, and was named after them. Some plants arrive unnamed for Barker to trial, to see how hardy and disease-free they prove. The old varieties especially are magnets for beneficial insects; the late-flowering ones are covered in hoverflies and butterflies, even into November.
The conditions on the allotment are not exactly ideal for hardy chrysanths, which thrive in a free-draining soil: it is exposed to a cold north wind, the soil is heavy loam and the beds flood. That said, she points out a bed of sturdy plants that includes '
Mary Stoker', with single apricot flowers, and 'Tapestry Rose', with single pink ones. "Last year, this bed was underwater for several days and froze, but look at them now. Aren't they lovely?"
With the exception of a few plants that really dislike winter wettings (she lifts and brings them under cover), after mulching and feeding in spring, most cope well with Barker's "no pampering" rule, save for a monthly dose of liquid seaweed in the growing season. In fact, she believes that overfeeding and spraying make for soft plants that are susceptible to pests and diseases.
If you are growing these chrysanths primarily for cutting, it makes sense to find them a spot in the veg garden or allotment. For border appeal, however, combining them with grasses and other late-flowering perennials enhances their more relaxed look. One of the oldest in Barker's collection is 'Julie Lagravère', with tiny, deep-maroon pompons that flower until December and combine beautifully with short pennisetum grasses. Its leaves turn beetroot when the temperature drops, as do those of another old variety, '
Emperor of China', which has silvery-pink spoon-shaped petals.
Tall grasses such as miscanthus and Calamagrostis brachytricha can act as supports for the taller chrysanths; plant shorter, clumping species such as Anemanthele lessoniana in front to obscure any legginess. Heucheras make a good foil for apricot chrysanths, sedums for pink ones and kniphofias for hot shades.
With Barker's trials and specialist growers such as Southview Nurseries, in Eversley, Hampshire, and Halls of Heddon, in Tyne and Wear (which has been growing exhibition varieties since 1928), selling a wide range of plants and rooted cuttings, it seems hardy chrysanths are firmly back on the map and into the borders.
'Innocence': Pale-pink single flowers with yellow centres, October and November '
Lucy Simpson': Bronze single flowers, September and October 'Mary Stoker': Apricot-yellow single flowers, from September and October 'Mei-Kyo': Pink pompons, October to December.
Mrs Jessie Cooper': Magenta single flowers with yellow centres, October to December 'Nantyderry Sunshine' AGM: Rich yellow semi-pompons, October and November 'Paul Boissier': Green-centred orange single flowers, September to November 'Ruby Mound' AGM: Deep-maroon double flowers, October and November 'Ruby Raynor' AGM: Golden double flowers, September and October 'Tapestry Rose': Lipstick-pink single flowers with yellow centres, October.
Judy Barker's collection is open by appointment. Call 01727 822564 or e-mail
Suppliers: Southview Nurseries (0118 973 2206,, Halls of Heddon (01661 852445,, Daisy Roots (01992 582401,, Norwell Nurseries (01636 636337,
- Chrysanths do best in a sunny, well-drained spot.
- Dig in plenty of compost or manure before planting, and add blood, fish and bone fertiliser to the hole. Mulch around the plant.
- Apply a liquid feed, such as seaweed, monthly from June to September. Taller, more lax varieties may need support.
- Thin out weedy stems in spring and divide the plants every two or four years, cutting away any old wood.
- Varieties marked 21 in the RHS Plant Finder ( are garden chrysanths. Plant them in spring.

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