Chrysanthemum collector shares his wealth
Over the years I've met daylily devotees and fuchsia fanatics, but Robin McLeod was the first chrysanthemum collector I've run into.
We're talking about exhibition variety chrysanthemums (also called football and spider mums), those nine-to-twelve-inch-wide flowers you mainly see in florist arrangements, or at chrysanthemum shows.
McLeod grows 250 chrysanthemums, representing 61 varieties. He's a species of gardener with a strong passion for one group of plants. But why chrysanthemums?
'Partly, when I was a kid, these are the flowers I remember. And there's not too much blooming this late (in autumn), and they last for two months in their pots,' he says.
McLeod grew up in Scotland, and speaks with the enchanting music of his birth country. Tall and ruddy, with white hair, he looks like he just stepped off the heather moors.
A retired math professor, he was looking for a useful project. He lives near Courtyard Village retirement community and drove past it often. A lightbulb went off-he would offer to teach others how to propagate and nurture chrysanthemums.
'Growing chrysanthemums means messing with things nine months a year. I was thinking of this as an activity,' he says. 'Some of the residents were keen gardeners before they moved here.'
You take cuttings from the mother plants in March, and from that time until fall flowering there are many tasks. He pictured sharing the process with interested seniors as a fun way to bring them together.
In October 2008 McLeod took chrysanthemums in full bloom to the residence to see if anyone was interested.
'There was more enthusiasm than I expected,' he says. He held a meeting in December, and in February 2009 fifteen residents launched the project. A core group of eight remain, and I met with three of the women and McLeod at Courtyard Village to learn more.
'We call it a club,' says Pat Hershey. She not only grows the chrysanthemums but shares them with her neighbors, and also photographs them.
'We were not that well acquainted at first-180 people live here. Robin brought in big pots and we'd sit around the table and take cuttings,' Hershey adds.
Cuttings dipped in rooting hormone are set in seed trays filled with damp sterile potting soil. The trays are covered with plastic domes that stand about seven inches tall, like mini-greenhouses. It takes a month for roots to develop. McLeod keeps his trays in the basement, while the women use their windowsills.
It's tempting to lift the dome and check the cuttings.
'I couldn't help but look at them all the time and peek,' Helen Cooper admitted. 'I'd take the lid off and water them a little.'
'I learned to leave them alone,' says Hershey.
Both got good results in the long run.
Once the cuttings root, the group moves them to two-inch pots, and keeps them indoors. When the tiny pots are packed with roots, it's time to transplant them to four-inch pots.
'By June we move them outside,' says McLeod. 'We get 10-inch pots ready-fill them with soil and slow release fertilizer.' They plant one small chyrsanthemum in each 10-inch pot.
'Now the real fun begins,' he says. 'You have to pinch them back, and have a vision for how many flowers you want per stem, and how many stems you want on each plant. I tend to keep five stems.'
Pinching back continues in June and July. The more stems, the more flowers. But the largest flowers will be those with only one bud to a stem. Helen Cooper grows chrysanthemums and also tends the rose gardens at Courtyard Village, despite severe arthritis.
'It's like I never left my home,' she says. She loves the companionship of the chrysanthemum club.
'It brings us together-it's a social event,' she says. 'What I like about it is the relaxed way we just enjoy doing it.'
Edna Smitherman gardened on an acre before moving to the residence.
'We were transplanted from our homes and we're incarcerated,' she wisecracks. 'This is an outlet!'
Smitherman appreciates McLeod's patience and easygoing nature.
'He doesn't fire you if you kill his plants,' she says.
'I want to try carnations too - I like scented flowers. It could be an activity,' McLeod says.
Clearly, he's telling the truth when he admits, 'I failed retirement.'