Every year at this time, I suffer a bout of mum madness when garden centers and big boxes brim with chrysanthemums and asters.
They’re everywhere, from six-inch pots to bushel baskets of orange, yellow and copper mounded behemoths. I want to buy everything and plant!
Then I slap myself on the forehead, take a deep breath and cry “You should have planted these in May!”
People start pointing at me and make avoid-the-crazy-woman sounds to their children and spouses. I slink off to the refuge of my car or the plumbing department to avoid further embarrassment.
Mums come in such tantalizing colors and shapes that it's difficult to ignore them in stores. All photos courtesty of Yoder Brothers.
All mum plants at garden centers are hardy, meaning that they are perennials in most climates. However, if these plants are put in the ground from August on, most won’t make it through the winter in areas where temperatures dip into the single digits. The reason is that mums planted late in the season are near or at the flowering stage, and they don’t grow roots to sustain plants through the winter. All the energy is put into blooming. That is why mums should be planted in the spring.
Chrysanthemums make an autumn landscape, but they must be planted in the spring to survive the winter.
Gardeners in northern states where temperatures regularly dip below zero can lose even spring-planted hardy mums to winter. You can changes the odds in your favor by leaving the dead foliage on mums and asters instead of shearing for neatness. An Iowa State University study found that unpruned plants survive at much lower temperatures than those that were pruned. Be sure to add 4 to 6 inches of mulch after the ground has frozen for more protection.
Potted mums from the florist or grocery store and exotics like huge football chrysanthemums, delicate spiders and spoons don’t survive cold winters either and are not good choices for landscapes. They are not bred to be hardy; it’s their form, color and size that are prized. Think of them as disposable decorations, along with the gourds and blue pumpkins you buy.
Think of exotic mums like these spoons as disposable decorations, unless you can over-winter them indoors successfully.
Saving a Mum
If winters are too cold for a favorite or you didn’t plant them early enough, over-winter chrysanthemums in the basement or a dark, cold closet. Pot up plants after the first frost if they are in the ground; include as much root system as possible. Water well and place in an area where it is totally dark and 32ºF to 50ºF. The plants will hibernate for the winter if you keep their roots damp. Check pots weekly. In the spring, acclimate plants to light gradually and set them out in the garden after the last killing frost.
Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.
In stores now!
Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including amazon.com.