The Longwood Gardens Chrysanthemum Exhibit has over 40 rare cultivars, from tall to bonsai [photos] | Life & Culture

Longwood Gardens chrysanthemums grow long enough to cover 5-foot-wide umbrellas and full enough to fill 6-foot-tall teardrop hanging baskets.

To train the stars of the Chrysanthemum Festival, producers like Jason Simpson launched the Botanical Boot Camp in December.

The thousand-flowered chrysanthemum centerpiece debuted even earlier, right at the start of the pandemic. During the months when the gardens were closed to the public and the staff was reduced to a reduced team, the producers continued to look after mums big and small.

The 40th Chrysanthemum Festival features over 5,000 mums grown and trained in a record number of shapes, including shields and spirals, as well as clouds and waterfalls. The show continues until November 14.

Simpson, lead grower, has been growing chrysanthemums since he arrived at the Kennett Square site in 2004. First, he grows 2,000 to 3,000 pots of chrysanthemums in homes on the estate each year. Then he moved on to cascading chrysanthemums, a dozen cultivars with small flowers and long, trailing stems perfect for forming topiary shapes.

He is one of two producers to focus on specialty shapes, including hanging baskets, cascading wrap columns and new shapes suggested by Longwood designers.

“It’s exciting to find out how to get this factory to do something new that we’ve never done before,” Simpson says.

A few years ago, that meant “stretching” moms into flower-covered garlands. Strings of yellow mums hung over the doors to the stage of the conservatory’s music room. These shapes were cool, unique and a personal favorite, he says.

Twisting chrysanthemums takes a team. Simpson takes the designer’s idea and works with a metal fabricator to create a stainless steel structure to support the plant. Next comes a plan to grow and train the mums and ensure they are the right size and ready to flower in time for the show.

The shapes may vary but the technique is simple.

“A lot of what I do is direct the energy of the plant where I want it to go,” he says.

During the winter in the greenhouse, Simpson coaxes the main stem of each plant to the length needed for each shape.

Longwood Gardens Chrysanthemum Festival

Plants come out in May and begin to branch. By pinching the ends of the stems, each plant sends up side branches. During the summer, the objective is to cover the surface of the fenced structures with branches.

For teardrop baskets, for example, the roots are inside the top of the frame.

“Throughout the summer, new branches want to grow toward the light,” Simpson says.

Every few weeks, a summer crew pinches the branches and ties them to create the living sculptures that hang in the veranda.

Longwood Gardens Chrysanthemum Festival

The environment inside a greenhouse can be controlled. Outside, the extreme heat and heavy rain this year posed challenges.

“I said jokingly the other day while on tour, well, Mother Nature hasn’t really played well this year,” he says.

The moisture was dripping all the way to the end of the teardrop, where there wasn’t much air circulation. This led to a fungal disease. Fortunately, Simpson had the help of a seasonal crew to remove parts of the huge plants before the disease spread.

Forms get their first shaping cuts in July; the last ones take place in early September so that the plants have enough time to bud before the show.

The Mums Festival is a month-long event, so many plants are not in bloom when the show begins. Growers withheld the Thousand Flower Chrysanthemum and on Tuesday decided not to display the plant. In its place are similarly grown plants, each with over 200 flowers.

Longwood Gardens Chrysanthemum Festival

Longwood is undergoing a major construction project. During construction, the western part of the conservatory is closed. The main change to the Chrysanthemum exhibit is for the smaller mums. Bonsai trees were once displayed in Western greenhouses. This year, more than two dozen bonsai chrysanthemums are at the Peirce-du Pont house, says Patricia Evans, director of communications at Longwood.

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