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Mum’s the Word

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Mum’s the Word

The chrysanthemum (or mum as it is commonly known) is a fall classic that conjures up thoughts of crisp nights, warm apple cider and gatherings around the outdoor fire pit for stories and laughter.  Mums are typically purchased for a brief burst of color in the fall garden and are appealing because they bloom prolifically well after other garden plants have worn out for the season.  Hundreds of types of chrysanthemums are available with variations mostly in color, size and form.  There are hardy garden mums and non-hardy florist or show mums.  In general, mums are “short-day” plants meaning that the flowering response is triggered by the shortening days of late summer.

In the fall, garden centers sell potted mums which can be transplanted easily.  Their shallow root system allows for versatility such as use in bare spots in the garden or for planting in containers and hanging baskets.  Chrysanthemums are one of the easiest plants to grow and following a few simple guidelines they will reward you with a colorful late summer and fall show.

Planting:  Plant containerized mums at the same depth at which they were grown.  Do not bury the root ball.  Choose a location with well-drained soil and at least 5 to 6 hours of full sunlight each day during the summer.  Because they are shallow-rooted, avoid extremely hot sites.  Frequent watering may be necessary at times of high heat or little rainfall.  Ideally, chrysanthemums should be planted in the early spring after the danger of freezing weather has passed.  They can be planted anytime though, as long as the roots have at least 6 weeks to become established before extremes of either hot or freezing weather.  Mulch mums in early summer with several inches of leaf mold, course peat or compost.  This will conserve moisture and protect against erosion and weed growth.  Chrysanthemums are susceptible to mildew, so keeping the foliage dry is a priority. They need plenty of air circulation, water drainage, and morning sun to dry the dew on the leaves and stems. Don’t plant in low-lying, wet or boxed-in areas with little air circulation. Since chrysanthemum blooming occurs in response to shortening days and longer nights, avoid planting near streetlights or other nighttime light sources.

Fertilizing:  Chrysanthemums are pretty tough and can thrive on their own, but they benefit from light and frequent feeding with a balanced fertilizer during the growing season.  Add a low nitrogen fertilizer (i.e. 5-10-5) before planting and spade it in to a depth of about 6 inches.  During spring and summer fertilizer should be broadcast and worked into the soil at the rate of ½ pound of 10-10-10 per 10 square feet.  Do this every 4 to 6 weeks using sparing amounts of fertilizer or flower production may be delayed.  For later applications, spread 2 tablespoons around the base of the plant.

Pruning:  Pinching the tops of mum plants is vital to producing plants with compact growth and an abundance of blooms.  When plants are six inches tall, pinch off the tips to encourage bushiness and more blooms.  Pinch back again when a foot tall.  Some gardeners pinch back every few weeks until July to encourage heavy fall blooming.  The last pinching should be about 100 days before desired bloom time.

Diseases and Pests:  Chrysanthemums are susceptible to a number of diseases and pests.  Leaf spots and powdery mildew are commonly seen if grown in crowded or shady locations.  Potential pest problems include aphids, thrips and spider mites.

Winterization:  Many mums can survive the winter if planted in well-drained soil and properly mulched.  After the first frost, mound about an 8 inch layer of soil around the base of each plant.  Cut the branches back to 5 - 10 inches and apply a 2 to 4 inch layer of mulch as soon as the soil surface freezes.  Use a light, airy mulch, straw, or evergreen boughs. You don’t have to cut them back though, and in fact the branches often help hold mulch in place.

For an extensive resource on chrysanthemum types and culture see our Kemper Center Fact Sheet: Chrysanthemums for the Home Garden.

Fall is a good time to evaluate your autumn landscape to see where new plants can be added that provide color.  Hardy chrysanthemums are a great addition and with proper planting, a little fertilizer and timely pruning you can enjoy a stunning display in your own fall garden. 

An excellent table of contents for all the gardening information available on our site can be found on the Advice, Tips and Resources page. Also, be sure and use the search box labeled “Gardening Help Search” on the left-hand side of our pages for quick, keyword searches.

Jan Gowen, Kemper Horticulture Assistant

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