Hornsey allotment show star on making the most of chrysanthemums

Colin Roberts at his Ally Pally Allotment. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Colin Roberts at his Ally Pally Allotment. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Flower show king Colin Roberts shows there’s still joy to be found in the unfashionable yet classic plants.

Few gardeners bother with growing show chrysanthemums any more – there was a time when people put much time and patience into producing them, but now you hardly see chrysanthemums at our local flower shows. This is why, for several years I have noted down the name, Colin Roberts, at the Central Hornsey Allotments (CHADAHS) Show. His chrysanthemums take up a good bit of bench space there, but it was only this year that I managed to arrange a visit to Alexandra Park Allotments.

I wasn’t the only one to have a date with Colin. Min and daughter Chocka, the allotment cats, were waiting for him to open his shed and feed them, before settling down on his chairs. What with the cats, the compost toilet that Colin was instrumental in setting up, the sunny late September day, the view from the sloping site and a little local history (the slope was made of spoil from the building of the railway) it took a while before we could focus on his chrysanthemums.

There were four rows of them, just below the greenhouse.

The first held a double line of multi-headed sprays in a mixture of yellows, pinks and tawny oranges. About twenty of them were growing between three lines of canes, with rusty iron poles at the corners, flex tied and woven in and out of each cane. There was a very traditional allotment look to that use of old iron and flex – yes, said Colin, his father showed him how to tie in like that. Colin has had a plot on this site for more than forty years, but before that his father had one where the old Alexandra Park Race Course used to be.

The next three rows had bigger flowers, grown in a single line, with either incurved or reflexed petals, in a range of golds, rusts, pinks, butterscotch and lemony yellows. The incurved ones have that attractive two tone effect; the pale backs of the petals contrasting with the richer colour of their fronts. Colin’s favourite is Gingernut, grown by Alan Wren, with its burnt orange alongside pale gold. Other varieties included Alex Young and Louise Parkes.

It was surprising to see so many buds, with no apparent disbudding, but that, Colin assured me, was only because it was late in the season.

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In May he makes his first “stop”, choosing three stems to grow (“3 up”), cutting out the rest and removing the tiny flower buds up his chosen stems to leave just the top ones to develop. In August he does the second stop, feeds the plants with phostrogen, but doesn’t bother to bag the flowers any more (against earwigs) or shield them against the wind and rain – “getting old”, he said with a shrug.

When I suggested that it might be lack of competition rather than age, he agreed that might be true.

Why did he think dahlias have become fashionable again, but not chrysanthemums? Back came the amused reply, “Dahlias are weeds, anyone can grow dahlias …” Colin added that he often gives away or sells chrysanthemum cuttings but somehow those who take them never seem to get far with them. He added it could take half an hour to “dress” one reflex chrysanthemum flower for a show – to turn the petals inside out with a cotton bud, so only the centre of the flower shows its body colour. That might not sound the sort of finicky activity likely to attract new practitioners, but then, there’s baking, so who knows?