Marianne Binetti

Call them mums or chrysanthemums. Either way, they’re great for the fall garden

If your landscape is not a blaze of autumn glory this week, then it may be time to kindle the fire with some fantastic fall plants.

Halloween and fall decorating come 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 out into the garden.

How to use chrysanthemums

Potted Mums: 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 4 to 6 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

Share this important tip with everyone: Buy mum plants in bud, not in boom. A few petals showing color on a well budded but not fully blooming plant is good as this means the plant will slowly flower as the season progresses.

Potted mum plants 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 mum plants 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 the potted mum that you purchase from the plastic nursery pots. As long as you keep the soil moist, your potted mum needs no re-potting 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 pots with a row of pumpkins and gourds. Mums last longer outdoors protected from rain on a covered porch or patio than they do indoors.

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 suffer yellow leaves and root rot if 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 atop bottle caps, corks or rocks so that the drainage water can collect below the reach of the roots.

Will mums 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. Now 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 mum plants 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

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. 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 also can 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 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 might have fallen out of fashion, but gardeners that love a challenge can still get snippy and grow some nostalgia.