Trowel & Error

Mums ease the fall

Late-season burst of color provides cheer

By Nancy Crowe

Yes, your garden’s at its peak, but the glorious colors of chrysanthemums beg to join your landscape.In September, most of what you planted in the spring and summer is still going, but cooler temperatures remind you the end of the cycle is near. Then you walk through a garden center or fall festival and find waves of color that cheer you right up again — in the form of chrysanthemums.

These reliable fall flowers have a way of appearing just when you need them the most. What’s more, they come in a variety of yellows, oranges, reds, bronzes and purples that ease us from summer into fall.

Florist mums should be enjoyed while they last. Someone gave me a small pot of yellow florist mums in the spring several years ago; I kept them near a sunny window and watered them, but after a week or two they began to look a bit worse for the wear. Thinking they needed a breath of fresh air and sunshine, I planted them outside. It didn’t help. Garden mums are bred for the outdoors and are therefore more durable. This is not to knock the beautiful mums florists provide, just a reminder that to everything there is a purpose. Or something like that. So we’ll focus on garden mums for now.

Chrysanthemums were cultivated in China more than 2,000 years ago and have been extensively hybridized in the United States. They’re classed according to bloom shape and style. You can find single, cushion, pompon, decorative, quill and other types — the National Chrysanthemum Society divides them into 13 classes, including Class 13: Unclassified. But honestly, you probably care more about color.

Fall impulse buys notwithstanding, spring is a better time to plant mums. You can enjoy the mums’ foliage while the spring and summer blooming plants are doing their thing. According to Purdue, most cultivars begin to bud when days are less than 12 hours long, but a few renegades form buds in response to summer’s heat. Go figure. Purdue also suggests pinching mums once or twice during their growing time to encourage them to bush and branch out. This means removing the top inch or half-inch of each stem back to a leaf.

Over-wintering is possible with adequate mulch protection and drainage. Purdue recommends applying mulch in late November or early December, or after the temperatures have dipped below 20 degrees two or three times. The intent is to keep the soil consistently cold after it has frozen, rather than subject it to alternate thawing and freezing.

Ken Hensch, owner of Aesthetic Plant Specialists in Fort Wayne, said his rule of thumb is to plant mums six weeks before the first hard freeze, which usually happens between Sept. 25 and Oct. 15 in our area. That means planting the mums around Aug. 21, “but most people buy them in September,” he said.

Then the key is to water as late in the fall as possible, he added, and through the winter if the plants aren’t under a blanket of snow. A couple of inches of mulch ought to do.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, a lot can happen between fall and spring. There are plants you’d think would over-winter, but for whatever reason do not, and mums may be among them. Next year, they may make it.

And if you do end up planting them as annuals, mum’s the word. I knew that phrase would get in here one way or another.

Nancy Crowe

Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.

Posted Thu, 08/25/2011 - 12:42 pm