Jim grows amazing carrots and huge crops of Queensland Blue Pumpkins as well as breeding prize-winning budgies, but his show chrysanthemums are the jewel in his gardening crown.
Some may see chrysanthemums as old-fashioned but they have royal connections: In China, where they have been cultivated for more than 2,500 years, the plant was used medicinally and for flavouring, as well as an ornament. In Japan it is a symbol of happiness and longevity, and the royal family has ruled for 2,600 years from the Chrysanthemum Throne.
There are about 40 chrysanthemum species, most native to Asia, plus lots of cultivars and varieties. Jim grows 45 varieties, including: spiders, quills, pompons, spoon, anemones, reflexed, incurved, single, semi-double, brush, and thistle. He grows many varieties simply to keep the plants existing in Tasmania, because not many people are growing them now and import laws mean no new varieties can now be introduced.
Producing prize-winning blooms is a 10-month journey that takes a lot of patience.
In 2017 Jim was the Australian chrysanthemum king, winning the best in show at the national championships in Bendigo, Victoria.
The flowers are mostly judged on form – whether they conform to what the standard is for the flower. The show flowers are exactly the same varieties as are grown in garden beds, but pampered and cultivated to produce the largest most perfect blooms possible.
To grow a champion chrysanth you need:
Shelter – Jim has built a sheltered area covered with shade cloth to protect them from the wind. When the flowers start forming, he adds a clear roof to protect them from the rain, too.
New plants – Jim propagates new plants from cuttings each year from his field stock to avoid any soil-borne diseases such as rust or viruses. He puts the cuttings in a mix of half potting mix and half-coarse sand, and dabs a bit of rooting powder on the cut end.
New soil – the new plants are potted up into larger pots of potting mix, which are buried into the ground in early summer to keep them cool. Again, this protects against disease.
Debudding – As the flower heads form, Jim can spend hours each day trimming off side buds to direct all the energy into a single stem, instead of a bush. Flower buds start forming as the cold weather sets in and then start growing really fast – Jim chooses the best bud and very carefully removes (debuds) the others. “Break the wrong bud off and you’ve ruined 10 months of work.”
Pest protection – Aphids are the main problem, plus anything that might eat the plants. In the early stages he pinches off aphids and encourages ladybirds to eat the rest but he can’t do this as the flowers get bigger, so he has to spray.
Training – Flowers must be facing straight up for judging, so Jim supports the huge flower heads with blocks of polystyrene and ties.
Travel – About a week before the national show, Jim cuts his prize flowers and packs them up to prepare for their 18-hour journey to Bendigo. Flowers are put in vases, then vases are taped into place in boxes supported by bamboo supports and blocks of polystyrene. “Last year I took 25 cut blooms to the Bendigo show – it takes me hours to cut and prepare flowers for the trip. But patience pays off – last year not one petal was out of place.”
Last year when the ferry pulled up in Port Melbourne “all these people were standing around the car looking at blooms in the back – it turned out they were from a photographic club and they didn’t believe the blooms were real”.
Jim has tried to find an apprentice – he takes 200 cuttings a year and uses about 80 then sells off the rest really cheaply or gives them to friends – “lots of people want to grow them but they don’t want to get serious.”
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