Gardening Topic for September 2009

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association

By Lyssa Peters,
Master Gardener


Garden Mums first came to my attention around 1980 when a coworker brought some cut flowers to work. It was late October and I couldn’t believe she still had flowers blooming in her front yard.

Eight or so years later I had a new house and a backyard I wanted to fill with plants and flowers. I bought packets of perennial seeds from catalogues and started them in the basement. One was (as far as I remember) a packet of Korean Chrysanthemum seeds. I wish I had saved the packet, because one of the plants I grew that year still blooms in my garden today. I always have fresh flowers to pick from mid-October to my son’s November 7th birthday and sometimes beyond.

My mum is an unassuming pale purple, it is a daisy-type flower with slightly spoon-shaped petals and a yellow center. I have moved the plant several times, sometimes forgetting where, but come October I spot the tall stems with lovely little flowers on the ends, waving in the cold breeze. I am so happy to see it.
Chrysanthemums are one of the best known of all flowers. A remarkably long-lasting cut flower, they are the backbone of the florist industry, found in almost every floral arrangement, and nearly every mixed bouquet sold in grocery stores.

Mums are native to China and have been cultivated since 5000 BC. Introduced to Japan in 386 AD, they became Japan’s national flower in 910 AD. Today there is a national Chrysanthemum festival in Japan each September.

Images of chrysanthemums are often depicted on ancient and modern Asian pottery and prints.

Many of us know garden mums as “Hardy Mums,” which are sold here in New England each autumn in garden centers, farm stands and grocery stores. They are so readily available and are so reasonably priced that almost every front yard sports a plant or two of brightly blooming flowers right up until the first snow.

Homeowners often treat these fall bloomers like cut flowers, watering the plants in their pots until the end of the season, then discarding them.
Not one to throw a plant in the trash, I used to plant my mums at the end of the season, but unlike my pale purple friend, they usually did not survive the winter.

Others have told me the same thing. They never seem to come back!

There are several reasons why. First, plants purchased and planted late in the season don’t have time to establish their root systems before the ground freezes. Mums are very shallow rooted, which it why they are easy to transplant and can live happily in pots. But their shallow root systems are susceptible to thawing/freezing cycles, and frost heaves. Many of the cultivars sold in the fall are not really hardy to our climate, despite the name. And many, having been neglected in hot parking lots as they awaited purchase, are simply not vigorous enough to survive the winter.

There are some varieties, like mine, that will reliably return year after year. Any of the plants on the market are worth a try.
First of all, plant your mums as early in the season as you can. Spring is best, to give the root systems a chance to become well-established. If you plant in the fall, make sure it is at least six weeks before frost. (Some of the plants for sale in the spring have been forced to bloom early. When the flowers fade, cut the stems back to one-half. They will bloom again in fall.)

Prepare your soil as you would for any new planting, incorporating organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure. Choose a well-drained sight that gets plenty of sun. Keep your new plants watered, and fertilize through July (fall planted mums do not need fertilizer).

Do not cut the foliage or flowers after the plants bloom in fall. Research has proven that mums survive the winter better with foliage intact. You can cut it back in the spring. After the ground freezes, mulch your mums well (4 to 6 inches) with compost, pine needles, straw, shredded leaves or whatever is available. After Christmas I often cut the branches off the Christmas tree and mulch my beds with those. Anything that holds the snow in place insulates the soil, keeping it from thawing and freezing repeatedly. A good, thick layer of snow is best, but there are no guarantees we’ll have that.

With a little luck you may find yourself with a cultivar like mine, happily blooming each fall for nearly 20 years!

I paid a dollar for a tiny mum in a coffee cup at a Master Gardener plant sale this summer that is “guaranteed” to come back year after year. I popped it into the ground and promptly forgot where. When I remembered that I had bought the little plant, but had “lost” it and forgotten to care for it this summer, I was very afraid that it had succumbed to my neglect. But I was delighted to find it several weeks ago, blooming happily in one of my garden beds. It is yellow, with daisy-type flowers, like my old pale purple friend. I think I may have another winner. I’ll let you know.


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Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association