Fall's Magical Flowers

Let the South's best display of mums inspire you. Paint your garden in the colors of Bellingrath.
Rebecca Bull Reed

How'd They Do That?
Creating a chrysanthemum cascade or standard is a commitment that takes nine months and requires patience. This ancient art is for the professional or serious hobbyist. But, if you must know how its done, here's what Display Coordinator and Manager Barbara Smith offers.

Start with the right type of mum. The Bellingrath greenhouse production staff trains cuttings from Bellingrath's cascade nursery stock which include 'Chajin,' 'Shinotome,' 'Cherry Blossom,' 'Himegokoromo,' and 'Perfect Joy.'

Plant no later than January or February. For standards, the staff starts eight cuttings in one 5-gallon size pot that is topped with a wire torpedo-shaped frame. For cascades that hang downward, they use three cuttings, training them on a frame that hangs below the pot.

  • Pinch off all side branches known as lateral shoots, leaving a single stalk. Grow to your desired height, securing each of the stalks to the frame with twist ties.
  • Allow side branches to fill in. Pinch two to three times during the summer to correct the form.
  • Stop pruning so buds will develop for fall. In Mobile, the staff prunes no later than Labor Day.

Just outside of Mobile, Alabama, Bellingrath Gardens and Home delights visitors with eye-popping chrysanthemum displays. Known for its thoughtfully planned borders and brilliantly planted containers, this once humble fishing camp turned public garden is packed with take-home ideas. Attend their fall mum festival in Theodore, and you'll be inspired to do more than flank the front door with the ubiquitous grocery store pickup.

"Due to our mild fall, we have the largest outdoor display of cascading mums in the country," says executive director Dr. William E. "Bill" Barrick. Most visitors are in awe of these fountains of color that seem to defy gravity by rising miraculously from beds or dripping from bridges and balconies in forms known as standards and cascades. "Meticulously trained for nine months, it's a true labor of love," says Bill.

Good From Above, Great on the Ground
Each year Bellingrath's staff installs new displays. "Dr. Barrick and I note which color combinations work, but more importantly, we pay close attention to what flowers when," says Barbara Smith, display coordinator and manager. "When the Coast Guard helicopters do a twice over, we know we've done our job," she adds with a chuckle.

"Bellingrath turns 75 this year, and the gardens have grown chrysanthemums for more than 40," says Bill. One learns a lot about a plant in that time and a lot about what visitors expect as well. To satisfy the folks who are counting on blooming chrysanthemums in October, Bellingrath plants the popular early-flowering Belgian Mums, along with others. These free-branching hybrids are loaded with buds, which means more flowers and bolder displays.

"Though fall's shorter days usually trigger mum flowering," says production manager Chuck Owens, "our warm climate slows that down. We put a lot of energy into picking varieties that are minimally affected by heat delay." Most of what is sold in garden centers are Belgians, so you won't have to look far to plant what the pros use.

"Our color looks great right through Thanksgiving," says Barbara, "thanks to the later-flowering cascade-type chrysanthemums." Of Asian origins, these mums are used for training the cascades and standards used in the Bellingrath displays.

Plant a Pretty Border
Having only one color is never wrong. Teamed with 'Autumn Amethyst' Encore Hybrid azaleas, these purple Belgians look elegant. Most gardeners tend to treat chrysanthemums like annuals--tossing them when the season is done. However, if you've installed enough to edge a bed line as shown here, you may consider using yours like perennials. Once flowering is done, cut plants back to 8 inches. Cool days and short nights may coax a few spring flowers. Pinch several times through the summer, stopping by Labor Day in the Coastal and Lower South, sooner in upper regions. When buds form, flowers should follow.

"Fall's Magical Flowers" is from the November 2007 issue of Southern Living.