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Archive for Friday, November 1, 1996

S THE WORD

November 1, 1996

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The mums in Don Hixson's garden offer a bright contrast to the colors of fall.

Mum's the word for one of the best fall flowers.

Just when other flowers are about to call it quits for the season, mums come on strong. The fading hues of annuals pale by comparison.

Colorful mums supply a strong contrast to the still green of grass and other perennials. Mums are perfect for any landscape since they range in size from the small, foot-high cushion type with miniature blooms to tall plants with giant blooms used as pompons for football games. Whatever your pleasure, mums are hard to beat for fall bloom.

Mums are great for novice and experienced gardeners. They are generally carefree, vigorous and reliable. They multiply annually, giving an even greater bloom year after year.

Knowing what a spectacular show mums can put on every fall, I had been looking for a mum garden to write about for several weeks. I drove around town and called a few of my gardener friends, with no luck. I called a friend who is as close to a mum guru as you can get. Even he turned me down.

I began to realize what the problem was -- winter kill. Several of the gardeners you have been reading about on this page over the last few months had mentioned to me that some of their mums were lost to winter kill last year. The frigid temperatures and dry winter took their toll.

One of the lucky ones

One of the luckier mum gardeners is Don Hixson. He has mums galore -- up one side of his driveway and down the other and all around his property. Though he may have lost a few over last winter, he has so many it is hard to imagine. I was eager to see them. We arranged my visit for last Wednesday; you remember, the day after the 8-inch October snowfall.

Because of the wet and heavy snowfall, I was not sure what I would find when I arrived at his home just north of Lawrence. I tried to gauge what his flowers might look like by how the mums in my garden looked. I hoped his had fared better.

I knew I was at the right place when I saw hundreds of mums in colorful bloom. When I met Don, he admitted to me "When I saw that snow come down, I thought 'That's going to be the end of my mums this year.'" But his mums did not submit completely to the snow.

The mums along the sides of the driveway glow in white, yellow and bronze. Some of stems had been broken by the weight of the heavy snow. Others were too drenched in moisture to stand tall, but their flower heads burst with color. Their fall fragrance drifts up. Don picked up one of the leaning branches to show me the height of the flowers -- easily 2 feet tall. The mums along this stretch reach the bottom rung of the split-rail fence just above them.

The fence runs up the length of the driveway and turns a right angle at the front walk of his house. A kiwi vine with thick branches graces the fence in the front.

"I know it needs a lot of support," Don said of the kiwi vine. "It's not going to get it from this little fence." For right now, the arrangement works fine.

Doing battle with grass

A brick and railroad tie path allows visitors to stroll past daylilies, yarrow and gaillardia on the lawn side and evergreen bushes against the house. Don explained the presence of the railroad tie on the outer edge of the path. "I do that so when I mow, the wheels can go on the tie." And mow he must.

We crossed a wide stretch of grass to reach the left side of Don's property, which is bordered by a row of tall cedar trees.

"I got tired of mowing next to them," Don said, "so I put in a flower bed."

You guessed it. The flowers he put in are mums. Originally, the mums in this bed were entirely yellow. Last winter killed off about 60 feet of them. Don replaced the yellow flowers with a mixture of white, pink and bronze mums. I could tell he was still undecided which he likes better -- the solid yellow or the mixture. I could not decide either. The mass planting of yellow near the road was eye-catching, especially against the dark green trees behind them; yet so was the combination of colors.

The mums in this flower bed are surrounded by portulaca in the front and astilbe in back. Though the astilbe flowers are no longer in bloom, their rusty plumes are artfully displayed.

"Each year I take another foot of grass away for mums," Don said.

The hundreds of mums in Don's garden had a small beginning.

"I started with 12 plants -- four of each color -- yellow, white and bronze," Don said. As the plants grew and became crowded, he divided and relocated them. He has too many to count now.

Many gardeners cut back their mum after flowering. I figured that must be a real chore for Don and asked him about it.

"I don't cut them back until spring," he said. "It gives a little (winter) cover for the birds and rabbits."

Looking for work

Mums aren't the only flowers that bloom with such intensity in Don's garden. Just next to a large lilac bush are 200 Asiatic lilies. He originally started that garden patch with 100 lilies.

"If I knew they multiplied that fast, I wouldn't have bought so many," he admitted.

Near a vegetable garden in the back a Japanese tree peony that "looks like a great big peace rose when it blooms" camouflages the fading crop. Iris poke between strawberry plants. Gladioli await being pulled up for a warm rest inside.

We walked past a white wooden swing hanging inside a small white arch. Don built the swing, as well as the split-rail fence and brick path.

"I got a bad habit of walking around looking for something to do," he said with just a hint of a smile on his face.

A brick patio with a basket-weave pattern and the steps leading down from are some of Don's other projects. He pointed out the two kinds of bricks in the area. Some of the them came from the Union Pacific Depot. Don, who works for Union Pacific, said the bricks were available from them at one time, but not any longer.

"I'm looking for more bricks," he said. "I'd like to figure out a way to go all around the house without going on the grass."

To reach the other side of the house, we crossed a large back yard. Much of the ground was soggy from the recent snowfall and several large limbs torn from the silver maple trees lay on the ground.

In flower boxes close to the house, white impatiens bloomed without concern for snow that still lay in patches. A beautiful variegated weigelia bush shows off its two-toned green leaves. A kiwi vine climbs up a post.

Another split-rail fence borders the right side of Don's property. Roses still blooming in red and pink grow along this fence. A flower bed by the mailbox has peonies and creeping phlox at its feet.

An enormous patch of bright orange marigolds anchors the end of the yard. These annuals keep coming back every year. Don claimed he does not even bother thinning them. In spite of their reputation as deterrents for rabbits, these marigolds seem to be a haven for them. "I'll run a rabbit right out of the middle of these marigolds with the mower," Don said.

We had come full circle. From the driveway I gazed at the beautiful mums bravely blooming from their bent-over positions. Don, the mum man, both with flowers and words, put it perfectly when he remarked "I like the smell of them. They remind me of a flower shop." Enough said, I think.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator for Lawrence Memorial Hospital and a Douglas County master gardener.

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