You’ll soon be waking up to brisk fall mornings, and contemplating how you’re going to decorate for fall. And that usually means a trip to the nursery for some gorgeously plump and colorful potted chrysanthemums (aka mums). Chrysanthemums are some of the most rewarding fall bloomers in the garden as well.
Chrysanthemums, which are native to both Asia and Europe, have long been revered as a member of the Four Noble Ones in Chinese art. The Four Noble Ones – orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum, and plum blossom – represent the four seasons, and are considered to possess such grace and beauty that they have been the subjects of paintings in China since the Sung Dynasty. The chrysanthemum continues to be a popular subject in both scholarly and courtly styles of painting in China, as well as most of East Asia.
Back here in the 21st century, mums are accessorized very nicely by other plants in both indoor and outdoor decorations. Keep in mind that some of these vegetative accessories will hold up better outdoors, where the climate is cooler. The deep warm colors of fall mums are striking when paired with flowering kale, squashes, pumpkins, and apples, just to name a few. Purple hued mums are absolutely breathtaking with anything orange, such as (surprise!) oranges, pumpkins, as well as berries – bittersweet, pyracanthus, holly, hypericum, hawthorn, rosehips, or any other cool weather berries you might have growing in the garden. Don’t forget about fall flowering annuals, which also pair very nicely with mums in container gardens. Be inspired by all those magazines pleading to be bought at the grocery checkout counters, or put that imagination of yours to work, by golly. Even the simplest arrangement of mums and a few accessory pumpkins (I’ve copyrighted that, so don’t get any ideas) dress up a porch, landing, or terrace.
When selecting your potted mums, if you can stand the wait, choose those with unopened buds to maximize your bloom time at home. You want to select vigorous, filled out specimens, popping with flower buds. If your mums are potted, check and water them every day. Pinch off dead blooms, and don’t feed them unless you’re planning on overwintering them. In that case, use a fertilizer that is intended to encourage root development.
Most potted mums are cold hardy to zone 5 (with the exception of specialty mums, such as spider, spoon, and football, which aren’t really cold hardy at all) but because they’ve been grown in pots and we typically plant them in the ground after Thanksgiving, their roots don’t have a chance to settle in for the winter. So when the first hard freeze comes along, they’re vulnerable, and typically don’t survive.
You can increase the odds of your potted fall mums surviving by planting them right after purchase, mulching heavily, and watering them regularly so that the roots have a chance to spread both horizontally and vertically. When the plants are looking ragged, trim back to 3 inches (or not – opinions vary) above the ground. After the first ground freeze, protect them further with evergreen branches or burlap. Temperatures near zero will take out almost any mum, even those that are well-established. If you can find the cultivar “Sheffield Pink”, a daisy form with a bright yellow center, it’s an old-fashioned mum with amazing hardiness. Mums tend not to like having their feet soaking wet during winter, so make sure the soil is well-drained, regardless of when you plant.
Since the best time to plant mums is actually in the spring, how do you overwinter your jewel colored beauties until then, you ask?
If you want to over-winter your mums, either potted or in-ground, make a space for them in the basement or a dark, cold location that will never drop below freezing. After the first frost, dig up your in-ground mums, and save as much of the root ball as you can. Give them all a good watering, put them to bed, and then check on the weekly to be sure that the soil is slightly moist. When the weather is warm enough, but before the last frost, acclimate your mum babies by sunning them outdoors for several hours a day. Then after the last frost, you can either repot them or plant them in the garden. Bear in mind if you want that ball shape flower-bud loaded specimen you bought last fall, you’ll have to pinch them back regularly. Very regularly. If you want long stems, so that you’ll have cut flowers for indoors, pinch them back a few times in spring and then stake them, if necessary, as they grow tall.
Fortunately, potted mums aren’t that expensive, and if you want to treat them as annuals, no one is going to ask embarrassing questions about what happened to them, now are they?
This is a concise, but comprehensive “everything you really need to know about mums” sort of article.
These articles provide instructions on how to overwinter potted mums and then how to bring them back to life the following spring.
This article features a beautiful image of a beloved classic, C. ‘Sheffield Pink’, as well as some good gardening tips for early spring.
Header Image: This contemporary ink and wash simulated image, done in the scholarly form, features two of the Four Noble Ones, orchid and chrysanthemum. (Photo © bluesman171 – Fotolia.com)