Hanging With Your Mom

“Whistler’s Mother”

Mothers’ Day is the number one holiday for flower sales, easily beating out Easter and Christmas. For all the millions of cut flower bouquets and arrangements that are purchased, millions more go shopping with their mothers on Mothers’ Day weekend to buy plants. Some are going to buy flats of annuals, perennials or even vegetables, but what nurseries sell more off on that weekend than any other is hanging baskets.

George Sheldrake, owner of Early Bird Farms in Ithaca, New York, said that he sells half of all the baskets he makes for the year on that one weekend in May. In upstate New York, Mothers’ Day is a bit early to put many annuals and vegetable into the ground; there is still a danger of frost. According to Sheldrake, May 15 is the average day for the last frost, meaning that its after that about half of the time. This makes buying a hanging basket a good idea.

“No annuals should go in at Mothers’ Day,” said Sheldrake. “Plants like begonias and impatiens don’t even need frost to be affected. Several nights down in the 40s will stun them and they’ll pout.” These plants, he said, will not grow for a while and will always be behind plants that are put in later.


Sheldrake starts planting his baskets in March. He has 10-, 12- and 14-inch diameters and is able to put more variety into the larger ones. Early Bird sells the 14-inch baskets empty with enough potting soil to supplement a 10-inch basket. “We call it ‘super-sizing,’” Sheldrake joked. “It’s like goldfish. You get a bigger fish in a bigger bowl.”

“A lot of people talk about planting for symmetry, but I don’t go for that,” he said. He combines a variety of leaf textures, flower colors and plant habits to create a full and interesting living arrangement. He includes what he calls the “thriller,” the up-right plant with the striking blooms, the “spiller,” the cascading plant that covers the sides of the pot and hangs below it, and the “filler,” which holds it all together. Sheldrake may include seven or eight varieties in a single “combo” basket.

Hanging baskets are generally filled with annuals because these varieties bloom for months on end as long as they are deadheaded. It must be remembered that potted plants are closed systems and need fertilizing regularly. “It’s better to fertilize than to under-fertilize,” said Sheldrake. “Petunias, in particular, love nitrogen. Pansies and violas prefer a low pH – about 5.8.”

Sheldrake inherited Early Bird Farms from his parents. His father was a Cornell horticulture professor and his mother was active in the running of the business until she passed away in 2002. He grew up on the farm and in the business, and is in the process of expanding it.

Early Bird annuals

One thing that bothers him about the nursery business is the amount of plastic that is used. He has been testing alternatives to plastic for his hanging baskets and other pots. He first tried pots made from rice husks, but rejected them because they looked too much like plastic. He is now trying out pots made from compressed straw held together with a binder and some made from “coco-fiber,” which is made from coconut husks that were once discarded in process of collecting the meat.

Both alternatives are supposed to be biodegradable and also to allow roots to grow through them. So far, Sheldrake has not seen any roots poking out of his experimental pots. He doesn’t like to use peat pots, the traditional alternative to plastic, because they harbor insects, specifically shore flies and fungus gnats.

Mothers’ Day is the third busiest weekend of the year at Early Bird. The busiest weekend is the one before Memorial Day and Memorial Day weekend itself is second.

“The worst thing for Mothers’ Day is if it is really hot,” Sheldrake said. “We put out lemonade in that case.” It is generally a fun weekend for the nursery though. “Sometimes people are grumpy when they show up,” he said, “but they are happier when they leave.”


Your Basic Flower

Something cheerful

There is something humble and cheerful about daisies. They are the flower that most children will draw when asked to draw a flower; they have a central disc from which long, simple petals radiate. People who do not know the name of any other flower will likely be able to identify a daisy.

They are members of the aster family (Asteraceae) and the individual blooms are actually composed of two types of the flowers. The disc flowers are small, radial cones crowded together on the center and the ray flowers are larger, bilateral symmetrical features that form each petal around the edge of the disc.

The name “daisy” is thought to be a corruption of “day’s eye,” which refers to their habit of closing up during the night and opening again each morning.

Composite flowers

The “classic” daisies with the yellow disc flowers and the white ray flowers are European species, the oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and the lawn daisy (Bellis perennis). Both of them have been widely introduced in North America and are generally considered to be weeds. True to its name, the lawn daisy can be mowed repeated without any effect on its health whatsoever.

The aster family is the most diverse of the flowering plants and dozens of species in North America alone are referred to as “daisies.” The USDA Web site contains a rather complete list of these species, some of which are rare and local and others of which are found in nearly every state and province on the continent. Many of the latter are introduced, but some natives are also widely distributed.

One popular daisy-like North American native is the genus Echinacea (purple coneflower), which, in addition to being a popular perennial in gardens, is also frequently sold as a cut flower. Furthermore, Echinacea has also become popular as a stimulator of the immune system, although medical studies have yet to show that it is actually effective.

Gerbera daisies

Perhaps the most popular daisy that is used as a cut flower is the Gerbera daisy, which is native to the subtropics of South America, Africa and Asia, but is widely cultivated and frequently hybridized to produce a dizzying array of vibrant colors. The popularity of the flower may be measured by the extent of the Web site (gerbera.org; based in South Africa) devoted to it.

James Lovelock, who conceived the Gaia hypothesis in the 1960s while working on preparations for the Viking mission to Mars, created “Daisyworld” in the 1980s to defend his hypothesis. Critics had questioned as to weather biota could produce a planetary homeostatic condition, so Lovelock and Andrew Watson developed a computer model to demonstrate the proposed phenomenon. Daisies (some white and some black) were used to represent all life on a planet.

That Lovelock would use a daisy to represent all life is a testament to their ubiquity and ordinariness. They are frequently grown in gardens because they require little care, will prosper in most soils and in either full sun or partial shade. If they are regularly divided at the roots and replanted, they will continue to send out numerous and larger blossoms year after year.

Outside of gardens introduced daisies may actually take over fields and ditches, leaving little room for other species. It is easy to see how they could become the default cut flower for wandering children and adults everywhere.

Who has not picked a daisy and picked up the petals one by one, intoning “She loves me … she loves me not.”

Who has not picked a handful of daisies and split their stems to insert another stem up to the flower, one after the other to make a daisy chain to put in your hair or where on around your wrist.

This habit grew into a symbol of the counterculture in the 1960s when John Phillips wrote “San Francisco”:
If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there