What Mum Growers Don't Want You to Know

No law says you must throw mums away.

Thanksgiving is nearly here and my Alabama neighborhood is awash with chrysanthemums – so many, in fact, you'd think the HOA commands it. I see red ones, yellow ones, orange ones, pink ones, and white ones. One other thing I notice. Almost all are growing in pots.

I remember when folks used to grow them in the garden. They were easy-peasy when given a sunny spot with well-drained soil, blooming every autumn without fail. And because they spread by roots to form patches, they were simply to divide in spring to make more plants for free.

Planted Mums

Steve Bender

Now I hardly ever see that. People buy potted mums at the garden center and plop them into decorative planters on the porch for a few weeks. After the first autumn freeze turns the flowers brown, folks toss the plants in the trash and replace them pansies and ornamental kale. Maybe I'm just cheap, but I don't get it. Mums are perennials, not throw-away annuals.

Mum growers hate when I say stuff like this, because they want you treat mums just like poinsettias, and buy new ones every year. There's nothing evil about buying new plants for planters, but mums belong in flower borders too.

The photo above comes from my front garden. It shows two different kinds of heirloom mums growing with a backdrop of ornamental grasses, a combination I like. The low, white flowers belong to 'Single Apricot Korean.' Its blossoms open pale pink before fading to white and it never gets more than twelve inches tall. The salmon-pink and rusty-red blooms decorate 'Cathy's Rust' that grows 2 to 3 feet tall. Two distinct colors on the same plant seem weird but delightful. I suppose the pink could come from a seedling, but it's more likely that those flowers opened on a cool, cloudy day. Flowers that open without sun (and not just on mums) are sometimes lighter in color.

You don't have to stick with heirloom mums, however. Any you buy other than non-hardy greenhouse mums are suitable for planting in the garden. Keep two things in mind, though. First, potted mums from the garden center are treated with growth regulators to keep them dense and compact. In your garden, they'll grow looser and lankier. For a tidy growth, prune them back by several inches in June and again in July. Cut them to the ground in winter and compost or discard the clippings.

Second, after a couple of years in the ground, your mum patches will likely be larger than you want. After leaves appear in spring, use a shovel to divide the clumps and lift out pieces. Plant these divisions elsewhere or give them to friends.

Now you know.

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