October 2, 2016

Training Japanese Chrysanthemum Cascades

Now that it is officially autumn, our thoughts often turn to chrysanthemums, but as you probably know already, my opinions on chrysanthemums is a bit different than those of most people. It's become one of my missions as a plantsman to keep alive so techniques and traditions with chrysanthemum culture, which has almost been lost in our mass-market obsessed culture. 

For a about 15 years now, I have been collecting heirloom and new (but so hard to find) varieties of exhibition chrysanthemums, those mums that look nothing like the ones you see at your local garden centers sold for fall displays. Instead, these are varieties which are more suited for conservatory display - raised in the most traditional methods which were once practiced in most every North American conservatory or botanic garden pre-20th century, and a method which is still used in Japan today, where the chrysanthemum is still revered.

My cascade forms were copied from those seen in an old book I have ' The Art of the Chrysanthemum- Cascades, Giants and Other Potted Styles by Tameji Nakajima, (1965, Harper and Row). I wanted to recreate the most traditional method that I could, and believe me, reference on this topic is scarce.

The truth is, there are plenty factors that keep these traditional trained Japanese chrysanthemums from our garden centers, and thus, from our yards and gardens. They are indeed relics from another time, a time that dates back to the 15th century BC - yes, these are one of the very first plants grown by man in containers, but today, one would need to visit one of the handful of botanic gardens to see a collection - why? Well first, these are different that the garden mums you are seeing now set next to pumpkins and hay bales. Sure, those are chrysanthemums, but the so-called 'hardy mum' has been bred to grow differently, to perform well in pots, early blooming and able to withstand growth retardants like Bonzai to make the plant nice and tight.

Some of the exhibition mums which are not cascades are budding up well. they are all being relocated back into the greenhouse.

My collection of exhibition mums is growing, and as all things which require cultural mastery goes, it's taken time, at least for me, to learn, both through mistakes and through disasters and to achieve good results. Last year I focused on raising single stem exhibition mums, with a few novelty forms such as brush forms and anemones, some with blossoms larger than dinner plates. 

Some of the Ivor Mace varieties have buds which are already 2 inches in diameter. This should produce a very large bloom in a month, or so.

This year, I am raising some very choice varieties which are essentially available no where retail, the same ones raised by the top growers in the UK (Ivor Mace varieties, in particular). These prove to be giant, shaggy forms like sheepdogs on sticks - that is, if all goes well, but just in case they fail, I have also decided to attempt training some cascade forms.

I rooted my cascade chrysanthemums in January and February, to allow the longest growing time possible. Heavy pots are essential, as the weight of a long cascade can tumble an unbalanced pot. They required daily watering, and fertilizing once a week since mums are heavy feeders. I know that it sounds like a lot of work, but it's a brief visit with a watering can on summer evenings after work.

Cascade mums are chrysanthemums which have been trained along bamboo structure for most of the summer, and then as the structure is lowered gradually each month, in early October, the branches are untied from the bamboo structure, and reattached to a wire frame, which allows the plant to cascade more naturally. This is the phase where I am at right now, so I wanted to share some of these images. No plants are in bloom yet, but I am pleased with how they are turning out.

The four largest pots of cascade mums, now forming flower buds, are relocated to the protection of the greenhouse, where I will remove them from their bamboo training structures - I process that takes two people, and a couple of hours to ensure the every wire is released without damaging the plant.

Some plants have plastic ribbon ties, which I also used, but I think I likes using the bonsai wire better, it was easier to loop around the stems, and to snip away when transferring the plant to the wire structure. I used black Japanese bonsai wire on most of my other plants, and used black waxed twine from Japan made specially for bamboo structures, for the form.

The cascades are long now, some are almost 5 feet long, and I had to set the pots high to allow space to work underneath the cascade. A concrete block and an old soda box helped. Also on the bench is No. 5 Bonsai wire which I will use to create a loop to hold the chicken wire mesh.

Another variety waits for transferal to a wire form. Disbudding takes some skill as well, beginning at the tip and the sides, the last part of the plant to be disbanded is the top, so that the entire plant will bloom at the same time. If I didn't time the pinching, the plant would bloom first at the longest part, and work its way back to the base.

No. 5 bonsai wire is thick and yet bends easily. It will reinforce the new form for the cascade, and allow me to bend it into shape if I need to.

The ends of the wire are set deep into the pot, and basically mimic the shape of the cascade. The long pointed bamboo form is traditional Japanese, and I can see now why this method is preferred - as the final form on these plants ended up being long and pointed, vs those that I trained onto chicken wire from the beginning - those look more irregular, and fan-like.

It takes some practise to fit the chicken over the heaven No. 5 wire. I attached it to the two bamboo base stakes at the top, which are set deep into the pot. I have yet to remove the plant from its many ties on the bamboo frame.

The chicken wire mesh is trimmed to match the overall shape of the cascade, and the edges are carefully wrapped around the base wire. The goal here is to have the plant mature in a way where the foliage and blooms hide any portion of the wire base.

With the bamboo structure removed now, the plant, which generally holds its shape, is carefully attached to the wire base.

Now, to move on to the other four cascades!

This past weekend we entered the Provincetown Massachusetts Dahlia Society show - Joe was going through some of his entries, above. I am so thrilled to say that I kind-of won big-time, as well. A dinner plate AA dahlia of mine won 'King of the Show' . The variety is known to be a show winner, and for some reason, luck fell my way with this 'AC Ben'.  Now the Dahlia show season is over, and with no frost in sight, the rest of the blooms are for friends and family.


  1. I admire your tenacity with the mum cascades! Congrats on the 'King of Show'!

  2. Wow, I love mums...love this idea! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Great article Matt. I have seen pictures of cascade mums and often been tempted (not that I need another horticultural challenge). Now I just might be inspired. I wonder if the exhibition varieties are available in Australia and who to source them from?

    1. I have no idea who or where you could source mums from in Australia - maybe one of my readers know? I would search for exhibition chrysanthemums on-line, and see if there are any dealers. Also, maybe a British firm can ship cuttings there? Let me know what you discover and I will do the same.

  4. Thanks for sharing this Matt. I love the idea how the chrysanthemum was trained along a bamboo structure. This will surely help the plant cascade more naturally.
    Two thumbs up for you!

    1. Thanks Paul. Actually, the bamboo structure was so attractive that I could have just left it on it!

  5. Is it possible to buy cascades plus in U.K? Can't find on net Keith


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