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Mums the word!

September 09, 2009
The recent heat wave has passed along, and the cool mornings now occurring in the North Country are a firm reminder that the warm days are numbered.

Here at Runamok Farm, fall chores are on the list with stacking firewood, and getting the gardens ready for winter, but there is still a lot of enjoyment left in the flower garden in the way of beautiful blooms.

Chrysanthemums or 'Mums' are an old standby in the autumn garden. While mums will flower for weeks, many gardeners are unaware that there are, in fact, hardy perennial mums that can be planted in the garden. These plants will only improve with age, and provide enjoyment year after year, instead of being an annual installation.

The garden chrysanthemum is among the easiest and prettiest of flowers that can be grown in the home landscape for late summer and fall display.

A member of the Asteracea family, the chrysanthemum (dendranthema) is related to dahlias, sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias and cosmos. The bloom, which appears as a single flower, is actually hundreds of flowers called florets. Two kinds of florets are present in a single bloom, disk florets and ray florets. On a daisy type chrysanthemum, the outer parts are ray florets and the center or eye is composed of disk florets.

Mums require a minimum amount of care and do well even under some adverse conditions. There is an almost bewildering selection of cultivars with colors that range from white to yellow, pink, bronze, red and purple. With hundreds of cultivars available, the choice of plants to grow is limitless. To have a more interesting collection of mums, however, plant cultivars of various types such as singles, anemones, decoratives, pompons, spoons, spiders and standards.

The key to a truly hardy mum is selecting the right variety and allowing the plant the time to establish itself in the garden before the arrival of winter. Here in the North Country, the best bet is to leave the foliage on the plant until spring. Mulch heavily around the plants (covering the crown with at least four inches of mulch) after the first heavy frost and the plants have died back.

Another option for the gardener is to physically move the plants, either in pots to a greenhouse, or to a more sheltered part of the garden. This is, of course, more labor-intensive and must be done before the first hard frost. For already established mums, don't fertilize them after July. This will reduce the amount of new growth that may be cold-damaged.

Give 'em a pinch

At this time of year, nurseries and garden centers are chock-full of mums for sale. These plants have been manipulated during growth to bud for September blooming. This forces a lot of energy into blooming and not much into growing roots. Planting these fall mums out in the garden in late summer or early fall doesn't guarantee enough time for plants to become established enough to survive the hardships commonly found in our climate. Without a well-established root system, freezing and thawing of the soil will heave the plant out of the ground and most likely kill the plant. This is another important reason to heavily mulch mums to prevent this heaving. Mulching will help regulate the soil temperatures.

If you do keep your mums from year-to-year and want to have the heavy bloom in September, the technique is really quite simple. Uncover the mums once the threat of a heavy frost is past, and as the mum grows and produces flower buds, pinch the buds off.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to keep the mums pinched back until the Fourth of July, (for some, a rather easy date to remember) and then allow them to bud out. You will be rewarded with a full mass of blooms, time after time.

If you don't want to bother with trying to save your mums from year to year, they can, of course, be grown as annuals. They provide superb fall color and work great at filling in empty spots where summer bloomers have faded. Look for plants with lots of unopened buds, to have blooms well into the fall season.

More sun equals more bloom

Mums require at least a half-day of sun for good blooming, but full sun is best. Mums set buds in response to day length, so avoid confusing them by planting where they may be exposed to bright light at night.

Mums do best if planted in the spring, allowing them to become established. They prefer rich, well-drained soil, slightly on the alkaline side. Fertilize every three to-four weeks until bud set will improve the flowering.

An important point with garden chrysanthemums is providing them adequate amounts of water. During some summers, like the one we are enjoying now, rainfall may be plentiful enough to eliminate most additional watering. However, the plants should be watered when the soil starts to dry. Apply enough water to soak the soil to a depth of four to six inches. It is best to apply the water during the day so the foliage will dry off before nightfall. Otherwise, leaf mould and flower diseases can become a problem.

McKee (The North Country Gardener) is a 20-year Master Gardener and is also a Certified Public Horticulturist. Questions or comments? E-mail him at damwrites@gmail.com.

Martin Lord Osman
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