A Confusion of Mums

 


How hardy are the chrysanthemums sold at nurseries, garden centers, and grocery stores in the fall? What is a Dendranthema mum? Are any of the mums used for a fall display going to survive if planted in the ground afterward? The answers are “somewhat”, “no one really knows”, and “maybe”. Welcome to the wonderful world of chrysanthemums, a flowering plant second in popularity only to the rose, and just as susceptible to hybridization and the fickleness that is often a byproduct of botanical experimentation.

 


If a gardener is concerned at all about procuring a truly hardy, perennial mum when out shopping, he or she might be better off disregarding most of the confusing nomenclature and instead following the rough rule of thumb that the more daisy-like the chrysanthemum flower, the hardier the plant. All those pom-pom and button flowered cultivars have been created by plant hybridizers who were motivated by producing what they presumed to be the showiest flowers, in profusion and in a wide range of colors. As in anything else in life, there are trade-offs, and in the case of hybridized chrysanthemums, generally known as florists’ mums, the trade-off for an abundance of puffed up flowers in nearly every color was a weakened plant that many buyers treat as a tender annual.


Reading in the garden, (15468717167)
A mass of Korean chrysanthemums in bloom in October 2014 at the Conservatory Garden of New York City’s Central Park. Photo by Flickr user David McSpadden.


Here is a plant that has a short season of bloom, typically lasting only a month, which is not bad for a perennial, but is terrible for an annual. What makes most annuals a good value for gardeners is their tendency to bloom continuously for three or more months. Plant them in a particular spot in the garden and they will fill it with color for a season. Some annuals reseed themselves, making them yet a better value. Perennials typically flower a month or two in the year, but since gardeners don’t have to buy new ones each year, they are a good long term value. Many perennials also increase themselves by various means, such as underground runners in the case of truly hardy chrysanthemums.

The florists’ mums that take over stores in the fall are a marketer’s dream plant. Firstly, they demonstrate very well the axiom that “the flower sells the plant” because they have flowers to spare when the plants are at their relatively brief peak period of bloom. Secondly, their fickle requirements for success when planted out among the other perennials in a garden ensures they are only nominally perennials and are in practice annuals, and that translates to turnover for sellers, a yearly marketing bonanza as buyers get new plants each year. Lastly, the genetic pliability of chrysanthemums rewards the efforts of plant hybridizers to produce new and unusual cultivars year after year, driving novelty in the market and the higher profits accruing to patented plants.
Chrysanthemum zawadskii1
Chrysanthemum zawadskii in Osaka, Japan. Photo by KENPEI. These are also known as Korean chrysanthemums. The confusion of names makes plant selection difficult for people, but honey bees have no difficulty choosing to visit the flat, open flowers of these truly perennial chrysanthemums, which they prefer over the often tight quarters of the flowers on florists’ mums.

For gardeners who can’t resist picking up a few florists’ mums in the fall, the good news is that they can plant them out and get more than one brief season of bloom from them if they educate themselves about the plant’s requirements and take great care with them the first winter at least. Many gardeners may decide coddling florists’ mums is not worth the trouble, and for them the most pleasing mum in their gardens will be the truly perennial chrysanthemum, and it goes by many names, most often Dendranthema. There is a confusing history to that genus name, a name which for much of the late twentieth century actually applied to all chrysanthemums. Or most of them. It’s hard to tell. Probably it’s best not to bother about it too much. The truly perennial mums can be hard to find in plant nurseries and shops, and much easier to find in old cottage gardens. They’re the waist high mounds of plants covered in masses of daisy-like flowers that honey bees love visiting.
— Izzy

 

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Sour Grapes

 

Legal judgments in lawsuits against the makers of Roundup herbicide continue accumulating in the plaintiffs’ favor, with the latest one entailing an award of $2.05 billion to a married couple who alleged that they each contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from years of using the herbicide in their home garden. As in many lawsuits, high dollar amounts are likely to come down a great deal in the final settlement, and most of the money will end up in the hands of lawyers, not the plaintiffs.

 

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and similar generic herbicides, and it is glyphosate which the plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits around the country are alleging is linked to their cancer. Meanwhile, glyphosate continues to be readily available without label warnings to home gardeners as well as professional landscapers and farmers since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled it is a carcinogen. European environmental and health organizations have ruled glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, differing from their American counterparts because they reviewed independent scientific studies instead of regulatory studies, many of them funded by agribusiness.

Wilted thistle
Welted thistle (Carduus crispus) possesses some fine qualities, including pretty flowers as seen here, but most people consider it a weed. Photo by dae jeung kim.

While United States government agencies continue to tilt the scales in favor of agribusiness, the courts appear to have no such bias. Consumers in that case have little recourse other than to seek compensation through the courts for their pain and suffering, which they allege were caused by the makers of Roundup (first Monsanto, and currently Bayer) and other purveyors of glyphosate herbicides. Consumers who are still healthy and use herbicides might want to exercise caution by looking for other options, though the only way they would know that is through their own research or by word of mouth, since there continue to be no cautionary statements about the risk of cancer on the label of glyphosate products the way there are for instance on cigarette packs.

Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket
Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket. Safer to use than horticultural vinegar, this more easily available common household vinegar may be a better option for casual users who do not require a heavy duty herbicide. Photo by Ms angie gray.

 

A safer herbicide option is vinegar. Ancient cultures derived vinegar from soured grape wine, but since it can be made from anything that produces ethanol, today most of it is sourced from corn, a cheap source. Unlike glyphosate, which migrates to the roots of affected plants, vinegar only burns the tops, meaning gardeners will have to reapply it when the weed sprouts new growth. Also unlike glyphosate, vinegar does not damage soil fertility with long term use. Damage to soil fertility is another effect of glyphosate that the manufacturers dispute even though some scientific researchers have upheld the observations of the effect by attentive farmers and gardeners.

Gardeners will be disappointed in the weak effect of using the vinegar commonly sold in grocery or home improvement stores, and that is because it is only a 5 to 7 percent solution of acetic acid in water meant for pickling food or cleaning surfaces, not killing weeds. For home gardeners, the most effective vinegar for killing weeds that is appropriately labeled as such, with accompanying safety warnings, is 20 to 30 percent acetic acid. Probably by reason of the low popularity of strong vinegar and the danger for casual users in believing it is relatively harmless, it appears to be available online only, not in stores. Vinegar that strong, while still mostly water, is potently acrid stuff which can burn a user’s mucous membranes, eyes, and skin, and may corrode hard surfaces and harm any small animals, such as toads, living in a garden. Test a small area first if there’s a chance overspray could affect something like bricks in a walkway. The best that can be said is it’s a good thing weeds are outside in the open air. Spraying strong vinegar in the garden may be unpleasant for the applicator and those in the vicinity and should be done with caution, but unlike using glyphosate, there’s less risk of serious damage to the gardener and the garden.
— Izzy

 

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Timing Is Nearly Everything

 

Early autumn used to be the best time to sow seeds of cool weather grasses in most of the country, and early spring was the best time to sow seeds of warm weather grasses, primarily in the South. There were local variations on what kind of grass seed to sow where, and as always with gardening, rules of thumb were not carved in granite. Since the timing of early autumn and early spring vary around the country, it might be simpler to consider the Mid-Atlantic states as an example, where early autumn sowing was best between September 1 and October 15, and early spring sowing was best between March 1 and April 15.

 

In the twentieth century, much of the Mid-Atlantic region was in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) hardiness zones 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. The southern part of the region was also in the transition zone for cool weather and warm weather grasses. Gardeners and landscapers typically planted both types of grass and sowed grass seed of both types in spring or fall as they preferred, though most found the greatest success with cool weather grass seed sown in the fall. That has all changed noticeably over the past 30 years and it is well past time for prudent gardeners and landscapers to adjust to the new climate.

F. W. Bolgiano, seedsmen have won confidence for ten years (16186099958)
F.W. Bolgiano, a grass seed company based in Washington, D.C., in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region, recommended in their 1899 brochure sowing a blend of seed types in spring and autumn, though without specific details on the seeds or the timing. Photo scan from the digitized illustrations collection of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

The USDA adjusted its hardiness zone map in 2012, moving all of them north from where they were in the 1990 map. The Mid-Atlantic is now covered by zones 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Gardeners being students of nature, they didn’t really need the USDA to tell them what was happening with their plants and how things had changed. Still, it can be hard to set aside old habits tied to the calendar, such as sowing and planting times. Adjusting to changes in the types of plants that will do well in a particular area is also difficult and can take some getting used to, but people must adjust or they will see their time and efforts wasted on planting the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than doing the opposite as good practices have always dictated.

Farmers know this because their livelihood depends on it. Professional landscapers are beginning to understand it as well, though in many cases they perform their work on behalf of well-to-do clients who don’t necessarily care about taking a loss on forcing a favored plant to survive. The landscapers themselves need to operate at a profit, but their clients may not mind throwing good money after bad in keeping a zone 5 plant alive in what has become a zone 6 environment. Home gardeners typically don’t have such resources, and often have better sense. For years they sowed seed of tall fescue, a cool weather grass well suited to Mid-Atlantic growing conditions, and they had success sowing it between September 1 and October 15.

Lawn Maintenance Sign At RHS Wisley Garden Surrey UK
Sign at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Wisley Garden in the county of Surrey, south of London, England. Photo by Si Griffiths.

But not anymore. Now it is best to wait at least two weeks. Now the season lasts from September 15 to October 31. There may even be little harm in sowing grass seed right up to Thanksgiving in the southern portion of the Mid-Atlantic region. It could also be time to reconsider whether to keep up a cool weather grass lawn at all. Perhaps it’s better to plant Zoysia grass, or to let the bermuda grass take over, which it has been trying to do for decades now anyway, creeping into everything, especially in the heat of high summer, when the tall fescue faints in the hot weather without extra water to sustain it. Maybe now the favored time for sowing grass seed should be the early, early spring, from February 15 to March 31, and maybe that grass seed should be of warm weather grasses. Gardeners in the North who have friends and relatives in the South will have to ask those gardeners to pass along their rules of thumb for tending new plants in these new times.
— Izzy

 

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The Hiding Place

 

For decades now when gardeners needed a windbreak or a privacy screen they have resorted to planting hedgerow monocultures of a few relatively fast growing evergreen species, among them the Leyland cypress. For some who prefer a more formal, planned look, that plan has sufficed, but others might look at such a hedgerow as boring and as a lost opportunity to bring more wildlife into their gardens. Planting with wildlife in mind takes a generous spirit, particularly for the gardener who is also trying to raise fruits and vegetables for their own consumption. There are trade offs and compromises involved.

One of the problems with a hedgerow monoculture occurs when one or more of the plants dies, creating a gap that must then be filled with the same kind of plant, sometimes at considerable expense if the new plant is not to be too conspicuous by its smaller size. The gardener can feel trapped, and the trap can get more enveloping and add even more expense if the reason for a plant’s death is a disease or pest, engaging the gardener in an endless battle. Sometimes it can be a blessing when a disease or pest spreads quickly from one plant in the monoculture to the next, ending the battle with its consequent frustrations and expenses and presenting the gardener with a blank slate after a tree removal company has carted away the battlefield fallen.


Leylandii - geograph.org.uk - 146076
This colonnade of Leyland cypresses in England is presumably a windbreak for the greenhouses behind. Photo by Ben Gamble.

Instead of persisting in folly and boring landscaping, a gardener might decide it is wiser and more interesting to plant rows or clumps of a diverse assortment of trees and shrubs, more closely imitating nature. The gardener might look for evergreen trees for year round screening for the gardener and cover for wildlife; deciduous trees which with their tall, rounded crowns fill visual gaps between the conical forms of the evergreens, and add nuts and acorns for wildlife food; shrubs and small trees both evergreen and deciduous which give fruits and berries in different seasons; and finally a water source, preferably running rather than stagnant. That’s a privacy screen for the gardener and a home for wildlife, and it isn’t only for large properties, since there are almost always dwarf or semi-dwarf forms of trees available.

Inviting wildlife into the garden this way means being willing to compromise on the amount of produce left for the gardener, and also means protecting vulnerable young plants from the very same wildlife. This is a microcosm and an imitation of nature, after all, and not truly nature. In nature the loss of a few sapling trees here and there to deer browsing is not necessarily a catastrophe since there may be as many more that will survive to maturity. But for the gardener who may have space to plant only a few trees, the loss of even one young tree is important. An example would be the gardener who joins in the effort to restore the American chestnut to the landscape and helps the cause by buying and planting a few saplings at home. Unless that gardener cages the chestnut saplings for the first two or three years of their growth, deer will come along and browse its foliage and rub the velvet off their antlers on the trunks of the saplings, debarking them. Caging is the only truly effective way to get deer to leave the chestnut saplings alone until they are big and strong enough to withstand their attentions.

On a small lot in particular a gardener should not expect to get very many fruits and berries for their own consumption. Birds love eating the same things, and they are outside all day every day, watching for ripeness, and when it comes the birds get to the fruits and berries very soon. Netting is a nasty business that tangles up birds and other critters, killing them, and it has no place in a garden planted for wildlife. Either be content with gleaning a few fruits and berries here and there, or build a small greenhouse to grow a few protected plants. Gardeners with large plots of land have more options, both for the wildlife and for themselves. Plant native plants when possible, because they are better adapted to coexist with native wildlife. Once there are birds and frogs and other insect eaters living nearby, the gardener may actually find fewer pest and disease problems in the rest of the garden, and that alone makes it worth the trouble of devising a landscape scheme more varied and interesting than a soldier row of Leyland cypresses.
— Izzy

 

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Why Worry

 

“Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher.”
― from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine.

There is no end to the availability of advice, how-to manuals, and chemical poisons to help gardeners rid their lawns and garden beds of crabgrass and dandelions, two weeds most prevalent in late spring and early summer. Are they weeds? Only the individual gardener can say. If the gardener lives under the watchful eyes of a homeowners’ association, the association will say.

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A meadow full of dandelions in The Netherlands; photo by Alias 0591 from The Netherlands. A meadow full of crabgrass would not be nearly as beautiful.
The guidelines of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) state that a pest is what the gardener says it is, whether plant or animal, and that each gardener has a tolerance level for pests. Those with zero tolerance spend a fortune and a lot of time pouring poisons on crabgrass and dandelions in an effort to eradicate them. Have they been eradicated? Maybe on a few tiny patches of the planet which are now toxic spill zones.

 

Mow high! That’s the cry which often goes unheeded because some folks don’t like walking through tall grass. Mowing high really does help desirable grass compete with weeds like dandelion and crabgrass, however, and if the grass is kept healthy with applications of compost and lime, so much the better. The main thing is to keep bare spaces to a minimum, because those are the places where weeds can move in and start to take over. Keep the applications of synthetic fertilizers to a minimum, or do without the stuff altogether, because in the long term they contribute to soil toxicity.

What’s a conscientious, organic (or mostly so) gardener to do then in the good old summertime when there are patches of crabgrass and dandelions in the lawn? Well, if an hour’s worth of hand weeding once a week won’t take care of the situation, maybe that mostly organic gardener could consider turning some of that lawn on the property over to some other purpose, so that it’s more manageable. Either way, the situation calls for a more relaxed tolerance level, especially in the summer. A suggested tolerance level would be one that calls for lying in a hammock under a shade tree, drinking from a cool glass of dandelion wine, reading a good book (see above), and listening to the peaceful sound of the crabgrass growing.
― Izzy

From 1988, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, by Bobby McFerrin, with Robin Williams and Bill Irwin along for the clowning.

 

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Good In, Good Out

 

Gardening starts with good soil, and container gardening is even more dependent on quality soil because the plant’s roots are constrained. The container soil has to supply all the minerals and nutrients the plant might need, though the gardener usually has to replenish them at least once during the growing season on account of the original supply leaching away. Spending a little more on quality potting soil is well worth it if quality is indeed what the product delivers. The plants will be healthier and look better if they are flowers, and they will be healthier in themselves and for you if they are vegetables.

 

The best commercial potting soils don’t have synthetically derived fertilizers mixed in, but instead have naturally derived fertilizers which cover a broad spectrum of a plant’s nutritional needs. The difference for plants between potting soils with naturally derived fertilizers and those with synthetically derived fertilizers is like the difference for people between a nutritionally balanced, full meal, and an energy bar or drink. A gardener shopping in the garden center of one of the big home improvement chains is most likely to see options for plain potting soil (cheap), potting soil with synthetic fertilizer mixed in (middling), and the greenwashed version from a major manufacturer such as Scotts, makers of Miracle-Gro (expensive).

 

HandsInSoil
Hands sifting through potting soil in a garden bed; photo by M. Tullottes.

 

The plain potting soil offered at the big chains is often very low quality stuff not worth the savings. The middling priced stuff is better quality soil, but it almost always has synthetic fertilizer mixed in. Paying extra for the greenwashed version is more likely than not giving your money to a corporation that doesn’t need it, but wants to crowd out honest competitors, because that is simply how big corporations operate. They’re cynically manipulating your interest in doing the right thing and your willingness to spend a little more to further that interest. It’s doubtful in that case whether spending the little extra does more for you the consumer than it does for their executives.

 

UNEP Stop Greenwashing Bayer
A protest sign hung over the sign announcing the 2007 International Youth Conference of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Leverkusen, Germany; photo by PhilippM2. The German pharmaceutical company Bayer manufactures neonicotinoid pesticides which have been implicated in the collapse of bee colonies worldwide.

 

There are excellent potting soils available without synthetic fertilizers from honest manufacturers, but chances are you won’t find them at the big home improvement chains. Your best bet is a locally or regionally owned farmers co-operative or garden center. The price will be higher than the green-washed version available at the big chain, but it’s quality will probably be better, and there’s the satisfaction of paying that extra bit to decent people instead of fat cat executives for whom a few dollars more means nothing other than another martini on their expense account. A conscientiously managed local garden center or farmers co-operative is a gardener’s golden nugget amid the commercial tailings of the big chains. The customer service is almost always better at the mom and pop places, and that alone can be worth the higher prices.

 

One purchasing option that people are turning to more and more, even for bulk items like potting soil, is Amazon and other online retailers. They have the widest selection of anybody, and often the best prices even after including the cost of shipping. It’s hard to deny that combination, and then add in the convenience of shopping online and it’s completely understandable why more and more people shop for everything at Amazon. Keep in mind how they treat their employees, however, and balance that with brick and mortar stores, especially the mom and pop ones, where you can see for yourself at least part of the operation and how it is conducted. What you put into the soil shows itself in the plants which grow from it, and what you put into your community will just as surely show itself sooner or later.
― Izzy

 

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Where Have All the Bees Gone?

Imagine going to the grocery store as usual and discovering after ingesting some of the food you brought home that it made you ill, weakened the immune system of some of your family, and killed others. You had no way of knowing what was about to happen, and if you want to eat you have no choice but to return to the same grocery store next week, taking your chances. There is no alternative. This is the situation for bees and other pollinators, whose grocery store consists of the flowers they have visited for thousands or millions of years. Massive die-offs of bees and butterflies have been in the news for many years now, and recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the yellow-faced bees of Hawaii on the Endangered Species List, the first bees to be included.

Bombus veteranus - Trifolium pratense - Keila
Sand bumblebee on red clover. Photo by Ivar Leidus.

Pollination Bee Dandelion
Pollination of dandelion by a bee. Photo by Guérin Nicolas.

Use of broad spectrum pesticides in agriculture is partly responsible for the decline in bee populations, but an often overlooked contributing factor is the part homeowners play when they distribute similar pesticides on their lawns and gardens. Unlike the use of pesticides in agriculture which is done in the name of food production, homeowner use of pesticides is solely in the interest of aesthetics. Individuals can change this behavior more readily than they can the practices of large agricultural concerns.

Change starts in our own yards, and it starts with a change in perspective about what is acceptable and beautiful. Instead of insisting on a monoculture of grass in the lawn, change the definition of the lawn to include some flowering plants. Look on dandelions and clover as beneficial for the bees, rather than as weedy pests to be exterminated at whatever cost in time, money, energy, and collateral damage. An important aspect of Integrated Pest Management is tolerance of a certain amount of pest damage, however “pest” is defined, and the realization that perfection is neither attainable nor even desirable. Nature is messy. The bees prefer it that way, and will thank you for your part in letting it be. The hard part will be in convincing your neighbors of it while fluff from your dandelions drifts into their yards.

– Izzy


Dandelion fluff
Dandelion fluff. Photo by Djordjer.

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