If your landscape is not a blaze of autumn glory this week, it may be time to kindle the fire with some fantastic fall plants. There has been a huge retail trend toward Halloween and fall decorating coming in second only to Christmas for seasonal décor sales.
As consumers spend more each year on glass pumpkins, giant plastic spiders and autumn door wreaths made from plastic maple leaves, remember there is an alternative to buying more items that need to be stored once the holiday is over. This week add live chrysanthemums to your landscape or harvest and display real pumpkins, gourds and corn stalks to celebrate the season. When December arrives your autumn décor can be eaten, added to the compost or (in the case of potted mums) planted into the garden.
How to use Chrysanthemums
If you have ever tried growing your own mum plants from spring starter plants you will find out that these fall-blooming perennials are tricky to train into tidy, mounded domes of blooms. They require spring and summer pruning; this means pinching out the new growth to encourage multiple branching every four to six weeks. The easy answer is to purchase traditional potted chrysanthemums that can be enjoyed for several months of autumn glory – if you know the growing secrets.
The Budding Secret
Mum should not be the secret word – share this important tip with everyone. Buy mum plants in bud, not in bloom. A few petals showing color on a well-budded (but not fully blooming) plant is good; this means the plant will slowly flower as the season progresses. A potted mum in full bloom with no buds will not adjust as well to the cold and wet autumn weather and the flowers can be short lived. Our cool October weather means that budded mums will open slowly and provide color until after Thanksgiving if given the right care.
No digging or planting needed
There is no need to remove a potted mum from their plastic nursery pots. As long as you keep the soil moist your potted mum needs no repotting to stay in flower. Just hide the plastic pot inside a basket, set it amidst the foliage of your container gardens or line up some potted mums on your porch or steps and hide the nursery pots with a row of pumpkins and gourds. Mums last longer outdoors if protected from rain on a covered porch or patio than the same plant indoors.
Water is key – mums hate dry soil
Don’t let the soil dry out! Use a narrow-necked water bottle or watering can with a long snout to get water to the roots of your potted mums and avoid wetting the petals. Chrysanthemums will l suffer yellow leaves and root rot is they are given too much water or if you allow the container to sit in drainage water. If you display a mum inside a pumpkin or plastic-lined basket, have the pot sit on bottle caps, corks or on top of rocks so the drainage water can collect below the reach of the roots.
Will your potted mum bloom next year?
The honest answer is probably not. The mums most often sold all year long at grocery stores and found in fall displays at garden centers have been forced into bloom artificially in a greenhouse. There are hundreds of varieties in a rainbow of colors, shapes and forms and some are naturally more cold hardy than others. In our Western Washington climate it is the wet winters that rot the roots more often than the cold that kills them. After the blooms on your potted mum have faded, cut back all the stems to between 6 and 8 inches tall. Next, remove the plant from the container and you will most likely find four to six plants planted close together in the pot. Pull these apart and replant at least 8 inches apart in a raised bed that has excellent drainage. If the pruned and transplanted mums survive the winter (not your fault if they don’t – could be a tender variety) then you will see new green growth in spring. By May you can start pinching the top few inches of each mum stem and continue pinching to encourage branching until the first of August.
Where to find hardy mums that come back each year?
You will need to visit a nursery, not the florist section of the grocery store to find hardy, perennial mums that will most likely come back each fall in your landscape. Mums form flowers due to the shortening day length so any mum that has been forced into bloom by a greenhouse will revert back to an autumn-flowering perennial once it survives a winter outdoors.
Fantasy Football Mums
Garden mums can also be pinched and pruned to have a single stem and one huge, singular bloom. These are often called “football mums” and were popular corsages a generation ago at homecoming football games. Growing them is an art form as each plant needs serious staking and pruning to form just one stem and fertilizing every 7 to 10 days with a liquid plant food. Staking, pinching and feeding must continue all spring and into the summer. Once a bud forms at the top of the stem you must pinch out any side buds until you see color emerging on the single flower on top of the stem. Then, stop feeding and just continue to water the tall and singular stemmed mum plant. Mums trained as giant singles like this are often the exotic varieties with spider-like petals or bi-colored blooms. Huge football chrysanthemum blooms may have fallen out of fashion but gardeners that love a challenge can still get snippy and grow some nostalgia.
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Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply.
For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site, www.binettigarden.com.
Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.