Mums the Word for Fall
By Tony A. Glover
Cullman County Extension Coordinator
September and October are the months that mums put on their show because they have the fall almost all to their selves. It’s not that there are not any other plants blooming. It’s just that no other plants are as bold as they are. They lend themselves to showy fall displays surrounded by other signs of fall such as pumpkins, hay and cornstalks. However, for some unknown reason, after their beauty fades, we typically discard them along with the hay, cornstalks and even the pumpkins. It reminds me of how a neighbor of mine discarded their pumpkins to the woods behind our houses in November and I retrieved one of them and turned it into pumpkin pies. I took my wasteful neighbor one of the pies as payment for retrieving the discarded pumpkins. His wife said she never thought of using “real” pumpkins because she always used canned pumpkins.
Similarly, we discard our mums and next spring we purchase flowers for our flower beds. Mums are one of the easiest perennial flowers to grow in our climate. Mums you might receive as a gift that come from a florist are not the best choice to plant in the garden, but the fall garden mums available this time of year are all suitable for planting in a permanent flower bed after the fall garden display is removed from your front yard. These are typically called hardy or garden mums rather than florist mums.
Choose a full- or mostly-sun-exposed location and add a good helping of compost or organic matter to the planting bed (3-4 inches worked into the top 4-6 inches of topsoil). Before tilling add about half a pound of lime per 10 square feet. Mums need a well-drained soil, so plant on a slightly raised bed if soil drainage is a concern. Despite needing a well-drained soil, mums are a little bit of a water hog due in large part to a fairly shallow root system for a perennial plant. Be prepared to give them a little help through the hottest and driest part of the summer. They grow very rapidly and respond to either frequent liquid fertilization or a good quantity of slow-release fertilizer applied in early spring (2 pounds per 100 square feet of 14-14-14 is a good estimated amount for mums and other perennials).
One reason gardeners may avoid growing mums is they think they need a lot of specialized care such as pinching them back frequently to encourage bushiness. Old garden mums used to require pinching, but newer cultivars are “self-pinching” or, more appropriately, they are self-branching. That simply means they do not require the multiple episodes of hand pinching to make their signature tight cluster of blooms. However, they would benefit from one pinch of the top buds about the middle of June. Don’t do any pruning or pinching past July 4 as a good rule of thumb or you will be pressed to get a good bloom show. If you don’t pinch them at all, they will do just fine; although they may be a bit leggy and they will bloom far earlier than pinched mums. However, even these leggy plants are beautiful and the taller stems make good cut flowers, which last a long time in a vase. You may want to grow some for the vase and others you pinch for fall blooming.
Once you have established your mums in a perennial flower bed, you will get years of beauty from them, but like most perennials they need regular care and will need dividing every three or four years. To do this, simply dig these shallow-rooted plants up in the late winter or early spring and divide individual root systems and plants into two or three plants. You could even repot some of these divided plants into 3-gallon or larger containers for your fall display and place along with your cornstalks, hay and pumpkins once again. If you try this, just remember they are heavy feeders, especially in a well-drained potting mix. Use a peat-based mix along with some aged pine bark soil conditioner, about 50-50 in the pot. Water them daily and fertilize weekly with a liquid complete fertilizer. I like to use 20-10-20, but something similar will work fine. If that seems like too much trouble, you can always plant the divided plants in the ground and dig them at showtime in the early fall.