Before we begin our adventure in the world of mums, I want to remind you a couple of great educational events that will sharpen your food storage skills. There are two opportunities next week to learn more about canning and other food storage methods. Visit the Bulletin Board section for details on both a hands-on pressure canning class and a one hour food preservation overview on a variety of methods and approaches, as well as learning where to get more information. I plan to be at both — why not come along!
The first day of autumn is a scant four days away. Although this event happens every Sept. 22-23, for me it always seems to come sooner than I think it should. As much as I like summer and being outside, I have to admit that I very much enjoy the progression of the seasons and the variety of activities that come as a result. I like to visit the tropics from time to time, but I don’t think I’d like living there, simply because of the lack of variety of that only comes with seasonal changes for those of us that live a significant distance north or south of the equator.
Seeing chrysanthemums featured for sale, either for planting or for gift giving, is a sure-fire harbinger of fall. When most of the blooming in your garden slows down and comes to an end, the hardy mum is just coming into its own. As an herbaceous perennial, the plant sprouts from the surface of the soil in spring, grows rapidly from its root mass, and expands its overall size. The mum’s blooming is triggered by shorter days. As fall approaches with the sun lower in the sky, and the distance from horizon to horizon shortens, the mum goes to work putting on a beautiful display. When the freeze hits, the stems die and It is time to prune the stalks to the ground and mulch over the root mass.
One of the great things about the Chrysanthemum family (now you know why we call them “mums”) is the wide range of colors and types. There are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from. There are several related plants including the Shasta Daisy, which produces its three-inch yellow and white blooms from late spring to mid-summer. Feverfew is also a cousin, with white, pale yellow and deep yellow blooming habits available. Feverfew is a low growing plant with plentiful three-quarter inch daisy like flowers covering the plant. Although in the family, Feverfew is a self-seeder, but not a true perennial. Not only are there many plants in the mum family, but also many cultivars inside the classification of what we commonly think of when someone mentions mums. In fact, there are thirteen different categories once you catalog all the variations of foliage, height, flower shape and colors.
With so many types and characteristics available, you don’t need to wait for fall to enjoy the mum in your yardscape. There are lots of interesting shapes and sizes that fit well into the yard and provide greenery and height contrasts to other selections in your flowerbeds. My friend Jann has a beautiful mum next to her water garden that is easily mistaken for a sedum, because of its interesting leaf shapes, and differing coloration along the leaf edges. When you take a closer look and see the stems, then you can see it is a part of the mum clan. In the meanwhile, it looks really great during the spring and summer and then gives a great show of yellow and gold blooms just when all of its neighbors are winding down for the year.
Mums tend to be inexpensive, and they aren’t very finicky either. They may be easily found in nursery centers and big-box stores. While we do see them offered this time of year, according to the National Chrysanthemum Society, the best time to plant them is in the spring. This gives the plant the optimum amount of time to develop a strong root system when it’s not putting attention and energy into bloom production. Like most plants, they enjoy some organic material to grow in and can tolerate a range from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline soil. They will benefit from a snack of granular fertilizer in the spring, and couple more over the season. As the plant grows, it will need more water to support itself. Mums respond well to shearing in the late spring. To do this, use a hedge trimmer to cut the entire plant to about twelve inches tall. I like to round the top to emulate the natural shape of the mature plant. Your mum will respond by producing numerous side-shoots, each all eventually bearing flowers. You can take this a step further, if you like, by pinching the tips no later than mid-July in order to get further branching near the outside surface of the plant. You shouldn’t pinch after Aug. 1 because mums need the end of summer growing season to set their flower buds. If you pinch or shear too late, you will remove this year’s blooms and you’ll have to wait until next year to enjoy the show.
If you do plant in the fall, you will need to provide moisture for the plant over the winter. Yes, plants do need some moisture in extreme cold. A first year plant hasn’t had time to develop an extensive root system, so it will be more dependent on you for an assist. Fortunately, this is easy to address. When planting in the fall, simply water the plant deeply to eliminate air pockets that can form when backfilling and to thoroughly saturate the soil. This is also known as “mudding in.” The soil needs to be wet enough to produce a soupy mud around the base of the plant which prevent air pockets from forming around the roots. Then mulch well to prevent the soil and root drying in the winter winds. With this treatment, you’ll greatly increase the chances that your mum be just fine in the spring and will actively start growing new shoots as soon as it warms up. If we experience a dry spring (it can happen), then be sure to water as soon as the weather warms to hold the plant over until your usual water regimen kicks in.
There’s a couple more reasons to plant mums in your garden. First, they like lots of sun. Once established, they will happily live in full sun, just as long as they have adequate water and get snacks of fertilizer from time to time. For those that have lots of sunny spots and a shortage of shade, this is a real plus. Also, mums are easy to propagate and to reinvigorate the older plants. You can grow more in the spring by putting stem cuttings (include the tip) in a cup with growing mix and keeping moist and in indirect sunlight. They will readily root and can be transplanted into the garden after acclimating, bit by bit, to direct sunlight over a week or so. You can also divide the root clump in the spring and replant large chunks so each section can go to work producing new roots and stems. Spiffy, huh?
You could say that for a great addition to your yardscape, “mum” is the word.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.