Chrysanthemums Are Autumn’s Best-loved Flower

With summer past the mid-way point, many of us are looking forward to the cool, crisp fall weather. Autumn, as a season, brings to mind pumpkins, marshmallows over a fire, the lonely call of geese migrating south and the spectacular colors of turning leaves. As if on cue, the deep green trees take center stage and dazzle us with a visual showcase of red, gold, orange and burgundy. Not to be outdone, chrysanthemums follow suit and provide color long after the last leaf has faded.

Mums have long been the most popular fall flower. Being a perennial, meaning that the plant doesn’t die but goes dormant and returns to bloom again the following autumn, many older varieties have survived for years in flower beds. Your grandmother may have grown a variety that was taller and less compact, while today’s mums are commonly called hardy or cushion mums for good reason. The are usually sold in containers and form mounds of tight foliage and profuse blooms.

In addition to the standard fall leaf colors of reds and golds, mums also delight the gardener with shades of lavender, pink and even white. Whatever your color preference, it’s a safe bet you will be able to find a potted mum in that shade at any number of garden or home centers, florists or even a roadside stand. Once you’ve settled on a color, there are a few basic pointers to remember when choosing and caring for your new plant.

While a potted mum in full bloom is beautiful, try to resist buying one that is already in flower. The plant will continue to bloom until frost if cared for, but ones with dozens of buds just waiting to burst open in an explosion of color will last longer. Just be certain that the color you want can be determined either by looking at the buds or by a marker in the pot. More than once I have been certain that I selected one color only to be mildly surprised by another once the buds opened up. Check the green foliage of the plant. It should be a uniform green, without any dark spots or blemishes, and not wilted.

When you get your plant home, feel the soil to see if watering is needed. Mums like rich, well-drained soil and do best when kept moist but not soaked. A good rule of thumb is to never let the soil become dry any further than 1/2 inch down in the pot. You can easily tell by pressing your finger into the soil up to about the first joint. If it feels dry, it’s time to water.

Try to find a location where your mum will receive at least a half day of sunshine. In warmer climates though, don’t allow the flower to bake in the hot afternoons. Sit the pot in the shade on those Indian Summer days.

As the flowers fade, pinch or prune off the spent blooms to encourage the plant to devote its energy to the new buds for a longer flowering period. It will also make your mum’s overall appearance better.

Avoid fertilizing at this time. The plant should have already been given a complete general fertilizer during the growing season, from March to August. To apply it now would only encourage stem growth and perhaps detract from the resources the plant needs for surviving the dormant winter period.

Once the mum is done blooming, usually sometime after the first frost, you need to prepare it for next year if you want to continue the enjoyment of the flower. Transplanting the mum into an outdoor bed or location is the ideal, but mums left in pots will also do well if care is taken. If you do decide to transplant, the earlier you do so gives the mum a better chance of survival by having a longer time to establish a root system before winter.

In an outdoor bed, plant your mum at a soil level consistent to where it was in its container. Do not plant too deeply, but make sure the roots are covered. Water it in well and then maintain the same moisture level as you did when it was in the pot.

Cut back the stems to a height of 6 to 8 inches if you live in an area with milder winters. In colder climates, wait until spring to prune. Add a layer of 4 to 5 inches of straw or leaves to mulch the plant and protect it from hard freezes. Never use plastic; it will interfere with moisture levels and literally suffocate your plant.

In the spring when weather is warm, remove the mulch a little at a time to acclimate the flower. During the summer months you can apply fertilizer and also carefully keep pinching back or pruning the top pair of leaves on stems that are at least 5 inches long. This will promote growth and help your mum to develop into a dense, bushy flower with abundant buds.

If you either can’t or don’t wish to transplant your mum into the yard or a flower bed and want to over- winter it in a pot, the same basic watering and pruning steps should be taken. You can add mulch to the top of the container, but your best bet is to find a sheltered place out of extreme winter winds and cold to keep the pot until spring.

It may not be sweater weather yet, but in a few weeks you’ll be seeing hints of autumn and craving apple cider. Keep your eyes out for fall colors and if the notion strikes, bring home your very own pot of gold or red or lavender or white…Well, you get the idea. Happy fall.

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