So much for October as a high point of the English gardening year. It has been absurdly warm and windy. Rain has sluiced down and almost everything that is usually a joy has become a sodden mess. I am still picking dahlias in November and the tender double begonias are in full flower. Adversity is my friend, as I have heard great film producers say in Hollywood. Where is the friendliness in the recent washout?
The good point is that the garden is still flowering and there is no need at all to buy cut flowers. Twenty years ago, October 15 was the traditional gardener’s date by which all half-hardy plants should come under cover. It looks as if it will be December 15 in the new warmed-up cycle. What a pleasure: another six weeks of flowers and changing leaves. With luck, I have planned well for it.
In early May, up on Hadrian’s Wall, I called on my longstanding postal suppliers of dahlias and chrysanths, Halls of Heddon-on-the Wall. Even on a Sunday, bigger and better plants of their best varieties are to be had in their store in sizes that cannot be sent by post to London addresses. In 2012’s fierce winter I lost all hardy chrysanthemums that I had left unprotected. In 2014, in Northumberland, I restocked with younger plants which looked so much better than my winter-survivors.
Rain and the tailwinds of passing hurricanes have mattered not at all to them. I have had my best ever year for outdoor chrysanthemums and urge you to make space for them in autumns to come. The plants will not be found in ordinary garden centres. Does any impulse-buyer think about late autumn chrysanthemums in April or early May?
There is also a ridiculous prejudice against the family as a whole, because of those mass-produced little chrysanths with yellow flowers that are on sale in pots in mini-supermarket stores. The shapes, colours and leaves of good varieties are in a different class. Their Japanese admirers for the past thousand years have not been wrong.
At recent Hampton Court flower shows I have taken stock of a great supplier, Chrysanthemums Direct, which is based in Knutsford, Cheshire. Their parent company includes members of the Lawrence family, a father and son who have grown chrysanths at show level for 50 years.
As late as early July, their show co-ordinator, Martyn Flint, gave me a rooted cutting of one of their winners, Misty Lemon, promising that it was not too late in the year to see it at its best. It flowered in its first November, admittedly a month in which frost was absent, and has been in magnificent form in 2014, its second year. Its growers observe that the Misty series bears “the best quality blooms” under cover, but they will flower well enough for most of us in the open garden too. Misty Red is extraordinarily beautiful, as it has a slight silvery tip to its dark red petals. Misty Cream is another winner. The flowers of all the Misties are big and rounded like a show chrysanthemum’s, shaped like a ball.
Spray chrysanthemums are the best-known choice for growing outdoors. Varieties from Halls or Chrysanthemums Direct with the names Enbee and Talbot in their titles are the first ones to choose. They are cut flowers, rather than flowers that will blend into a colour-planned border. The whole point of these and the Misty varieties is that they will survive most winters outdoors, lasting for several years. There is no need to pot them into the big pots that are necessary for true exhibition varieties, the big November-flowerers.
These hardy Sprays begin to flower in September when, usually, they are spared damage from rough weather. The individual flowers are small but they are borne in profuse clusters. In the next few weeks I will cut their upper stems down to within four inches of ground level and cover them over with debris, fallen leaves and so forth, to keep off the worst of a wintry spell.
Next spring, the covering will be cleared off in April and the plants will be shooting freely. Many of the shoots can be rooted easily as cuttings. They will become yet more spray-flowering plants for the autumn.
Most of my favourites this week are hardy varieties whose names include the word Allouise. Allouise Pink is a classically shaped double pink and Allouise Orange is a superb cut flower whose thick cluster of central petals is lovely to contemplate at close quarters over breakfast. From Halls, I have added a superb hardy double called Bronze Max Riley. Again, its flowers are twice as good when picked and enjoyed at close quarters.
In Britain, Marks and Spencer have begun to sell cut flowers of Chrysanthemums Direct’s best varieties. Latecomers to their cultivation can enjoy them vicariously by buying them and flower-arranging them until Christmas.
On homegrown plants, which are much better value, I cut the opened flowers only with short lengths of stem, leaving the many surrounding buds to open while still on the plant. It seems a waste to pick the entire stem as one and miss half of the buds’ eventual beauty. They arrange best in vases for chrysanths only, where their colours show up best.
The exciting recent discovery is that Late Spray varieties will usually flourish outdoors too. The traditional wisdom was that they had to be flowered under glass as an early November frost would spoil their blooms.
Now that autumns are so crazily warm, that old fear is less relevant. Chrysanthemums Direct even advise late planting of their young Late Spray plants, as late as July, so as to avoid them becoming too tall by spending too long in open ground. They are indeed harder to stake and keep straight if the summer is long and in their favour. No gardener ever used to risk varieties like white Stallion or orange-flowered Lexy outdoors but last year, in November, I was picking bunches of them from beds that had once held dahlias.
I find it convenient that they do not have to be ordered and planted in the main bedding rush from May to June. If you prefer to order all at once, you must stop the Late Sprays quite hard in early August, reducing their stems to no more than twelve inches. The stopping keeps their height within manageable bounds.
Of course the indoor greenhouse-grown varieties are especially lavish and able to be trained into amazingly exact garlands and pin-like shapes. My point is that this expertise must not terrify the rest of us with less time to spare and no glasshouse in which to exercise it.
Warm and wet Octobers are not good for autumn colours, Michaelmas daisies and the last of the late-flowering annuals. They are good for late chrysanthemums instead. Adversity is indeed my Allouise’s friend.
Photographs: Jo Whitworth; Christina Bollen; Jonathan Buckley; Richard Bloom
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