Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock
“This is the world’s largest planting of garden mums,” says 80-year-old Jack Paschke. “I’ll always say that until somebody proves to me that it’s not.” He’s talking about his nearly 10-acre multicolored plot of chrysanthemums, located on the eastern edge of the small Concord grape-growing town of North East, Pa., within spitting distance of Lake Erie.
Jack inherited the farm from his father, D.C. Paschke. Cherries, berries, peaches, pumpkins and other fruits and vegetables are grown and sold from what Jack calls “the stand.” It’s a rambling one-story building just a few feet off the highway resplendent with hundreds of pots of mums hauled in from the fields during the relatively short growing season, from mid-August until the first killing frost descends upon the mums in late October or November.
Jack’s father, who died in 1990 at the age of 101, began the enterprise in 1932, unaware of what he was starting. He purchased a few mums and planted them in front of his farmhouse. He liked the effect so much that he kept adding to them a few at a time. Before he knew it, he was selling to passersby.
Mums had become a passion — and a business.
Massive plantings soon took over acres and acres of the Paschke farm, as its fame grew by word of mouth and, later, from local and national media attention.
Jack’s father, a tireless entrepreneur and promoter, used bold marketing techniques to popularize his product. On one noteworthy occasion, he named a new mum variety after the legendary American singer Kate Smith, flew to New York and carried the plant to her radio studio, where it was dedicated to her during her weekly show before her nationwide audience.
Jack’s father later dedicated another new variety to the Erie Catholic diocese’s most famous prelate, the late Bishop John Gannon, founder of Gannon University in Erie, Pa. The gesture triggered false rumors that the Paschke family, staunch Methodists, had converted to Catholicism.
Jack says his father consulted and corresponded with horticulturists at Harvard and Cornell universities, and became acquainted with growers around the country, most of whose mum farms no longer exist. Over the years, thousands of visitors from all over the world have come to see Paschke’s mums.
Jack says he now grows 50,000 to 60,000 plants a year, somewhat fewer than the farm’s heyday back in the ’50s before Interstate 90 cut through the mum fields, taking away acres of arable farmland.
Photo credit: Michael Cavotta
Jack and Shirley Paschke
Over the years, the farm has grown thousands of varieties, and currently features around 150 different mums in virtually every color of the rainbow. Except blue. “No one has ever been able to breed one,” Jack says.
Mums originated in China centuries ago. They are also a prominent dynastic symbol in Japan, where the emperors have used it as their royal insignia for centuries.
Though Jack runs the mum farm pretty much as his father did for decades, he and his wife, Shirley, introduced what is now one of the roadside stand’s most popular features — Grandma Shirley’s Pies.
That began years ago when berries, cherries, peaches, apples, grapes and other fruits were left over from the day’s sales. Rather than carry them over for another day, Shirley began baking hundreds of pies using the fresh leftover fruit rather than canned goods.
Jack and Shirley have one son, who worked at the farm as a boy but married and moved to Ohio.
With no mum heirs in the picture, Jack, who will turn 81 this year, gazes upward when asked what will become of the farm when he retires.
“That’s a good question,” he says. “I’ll be here as long as my health is good because I love and enjoy what I’m doing.”
Paschke’s Planting Tips
In the fall: This is the time to plant. Choose a sunny, well-drained location and dig a hole that’s wider but not deeper than the pot. (Planting too shallow is better than too deep.) Tap soil around the roots, then water.
At the end of the blooming season, cut stems three inches above the ground.
In the winter: When the ground freezes, but not before, cover the roots with a light layer of straw, hay or evergreen boughs.
In the spring: When NEW growth is 3 inches high, uproot and divide root clumps in two, making sure each half has a good root. Plant about 18 inches apart. Fertilize with an all-purpose fertilizer. Pinch off the tender center from each new shoot. Pinch again in early July to keep plants low and compact.
Info to Go
Paschke’s Mum Farm
12286 E. Main Road
North East, Pa.