When fall arrives, it's hard not to mourn the passing of all the summer blooms we love so much: pompon dahlias, Shasta daisies, African daisies, little zinnias, asters, coreopsis, and calendulas. But take heart, for the fall garden offers all these flower shapes from just one plant: the chrysanthemum.
Hundreds of hardy cultivars (a.k.a. a plant variety produced through selective breeding) provide an array of colors and bloom shapes, making mums the divas of the autumn garden. The blooms last for weeks, not days, and the sheer number of flowers per plant will convince anyone that this garden fave really likes to show off. Add the mum's impressionistic abilities to its longevity, and you have a plant that pulls its weight in the garden!
Check out the info below for answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about mums, as well as tips on chrysanthemum care and a guide to different varieties.
One of the first questions people have about mums is whether they are annuals or perennials, and the answer is, they’re both! Mums generally come in two types: florist mums (also known as cutting mums) and hardy mums (also known as garden mums). Both types come from the same original parent—a golden-yellow daisylike mum from China. Today's hybrids in both categories are the results of endless crosses between several species from China and Japan. The result of such hybridization performed over hundreds of years is different types of mums that perform for two distinct purposes.
Florist mums are large-flower plants with many possible bloom forms, from quilled to pompon to spider and more. Grown in greenhouses and used only as indoor plants, florist mums produce few, if any, underground stolens, which are necessary if the mum is to survive cold weather. Florist mums planted outside are most likely being used as short-term bedding plants that will be removed when the blooms are spent. You can plant a potted florist mum you receive as a gift, and it may grow for the summer, but it will not survive the winter outside, no matter how much protection you give it.
Garden mums, on the other hand, produce underground stolens and can survive cold better. Most garden mums are perennials in Zones 5 to 9 and much tougher than florist types. Some cultivars are less hardy than others and can be killed by an early spring frost.
Both florist and garden mums make great container plants. They're just right for popping into a clay pot, lining up in a row in a fall window box, or placing in the center of a mixed container with trailing foliage plants all around. Making sure your potted mums thrive starts with picking the right plant. Never buy a mum that’s wilted; you want to start with the healthiest specimen you can get. Look for a plant with more buds than open flowers; it will last longer and the repotting process will be less traumatic for a plan not yet in full bloom.
Speaking of repotting, it’s one of the best things you can do for your mums. Most mums in containers will have very compacted root balls after sitting in store containers, so gently breaking up the root ball and giving the mum a new home in some good, fertilized soil will set your plant up for success.
And don’t forget the water. Chrysanthemums love full sun and all that heat means they also need plenty of water. Give them a good soak after first repotting, then water every other day or when soil seems dry.
Because of their tight, mounded habit and stunning bloom cover, garden mums are perfect for mass plantings. To get the maximum effect from far away, stick to only one or two colors. Another possibility is to arrange a gradual transition of related colors in an ombre effect. Look around your yard to see what colors would best complement the existing landscape. Many landscape plants can provide a backdrop for groupings of mums. For texture, choose ornamental grasses, berry shrubs, sedum, or almost any conifer.
If you decorate for fall with pumpkins and gourds, choose orange, bronze, yellow, and creamy white mums. If you have a lot of evergreen plants that provide a backdrop of varying shades of green foliage, try bright pinks, lavenders, pure whites, or reds. With such bold colors, a large grouping of mums can excite even the most drab of fall landscapes.
To get the most from your mums, choose cultivars according to their bloom times. It also helps to coordinate bloom time with the length of fall in your location. Most garden mums will withstand a light fall frost, but finding the right cultivars will provide the longest possible amount of pleasure.
Mums aren't as expensive as many perennials, so if you choose to, you can plant them as annuals without worrying that you've spent too much money on something that might not live more than one season. If you're an impulse buyer, you'll probably see pots of colorful mums this fall and not be able to resist.
Fall planting lessens the chance of winter survival, however, since roots don't have time to establish themselves. If you want something more permanent and are willing to provide proper care such as mulching and pinching to encourage compact growth and more blooms, plant mums in the spring and allow them to get established in the garden. This will improve their chances of overwintering and reblooming the next year. Some plants will even produce a few blooms in the spring before being pinched for fall flowers.
Whether in a pot or in your garden, mums like lots of light. Mums thrive in full sun conditions as long as you give them enough water. Choose a spot that gets at least six hours of sun a day. Plants that don't get enough sunlight will be tall and leggy and produce fewer, smaller flowers. Just be careful: Light is not the same as heat. Don't put potted mums out too early in the season when summer's temps are still in full swing. Plants likely won't survive well.
Water newly planted mums thoroughly, and never let them wilt. After they are established, give mums about an inch of water per week. When bottom leaves look limp or start to turn brown, water more often. Avoid soaking the foliage, which encourages disease.
Mums thrive in well-drained soil. Heavy clay soil should be amended. If your yard is soggy after the slightest rain, grow mums in raised beds with friable soil for good root growth.
If the soil is too dense, add compost and prepare to a depth of 8-12 inches for best performance. Mums' roots are shallow, and they don't like competition. Plant mums about 1 inch deeper than they were in the nursery pot, being careful with the roots as you spread them.
Plants set out in spring should get a 5-10-10 fertilizer once or twice a month until cooler weather sets in. Don't fertilize plants set out in fall as annuals, but plants you hope to overwinter should get high-phosphorus fertilizer to stimulate root growth.
Prepare mums for winter after the first hard frost. Mulch up to 4 inches with straw or shredded hardwood. Fill in around the entire plant, spreading well between branches. Pinch off dead blooms to clean up the plant, but leave branches intact. Mums have a better chance of surviving if you wait to prune old stems until spring.
Although garden mums are often called hardy mums, they may not survive the winter if drainage is poor or if you live in an extremely cold climate. If your mums survive the winter, you'll see new growth developing around the base of the plant in early spring. As soon as the weather warms, pull away mulch to allow new shoots to pop up. The old, dead growth from last year can be clipped away. If nothing develops at the base of the plant, it's a sign that the plant did not survive the winter.
You can also winterize mums in pots by bringing them inside by first frost and mulching. See Growing Mums in Containers for more info on caring for potted chrysanthemums.
Mums grown as perennials need to be divided every couple of years. Divide perennials in the spring after the last hard frost and after you see new growth starting. Dig up the plant in one piece and separate outer pieces from the center with a clean and sharp spade or large knife. Replant the outer portions into a rejuvenated bed, and discard the original center of the plant.
Three to five vigorous shoots are enough to make a showy clump. Once new shoots start to develop, give them a little slow-release granular flower fertilizer and leave them alone. When they are about 6 inches tall, pinch back the tops of each stem by 1-2 inches or so. This promotes compact, bushy growth later on.
The key to those full, rounded domes of blooms that you associate with mums is pinching to create more branching and keep plants compact. Don't hold back—just a few minutes here and there will reward you with a thick, solid-looking plant.
If you bought large, full plants in the fall, they have already been pinched and are ready for planting. Young spring plants will need pinching for maximum bloom and best plant shape.
Start pinching as soon as you see a good flush of buds. To pinch a plant, remove the growing tip of a stem by nipping it between your thumb and forefinger. Pinch about half of the tender new growth at the top of the shoot; choose some stems with buds and some without. Repeat the process with every 3 to 5 inches of growth (about every two to four weeks) until July 4. Stopping then ensures you will get good bud formation and blooms in fall. Each single pinched stem will divide into two stems.
As a general rule, deer won't eat chrysanthemums. But it's really up to the deer. Like people, individual deer have specific tastes. I don't like sauerkraut, for example, but friends of mine do. Most deer may hate chrysanthemums, but there may be an odd one or two that like them.
If you think mums are limited to the candy-colored mounded plants often sold in front of grocery stores, think again. There are dozens of gorgeous varieties of chrysanthemums, each with its own unique beauty. Here are a few mum types would look great in any showy front yard display.
Also known as florist mums, these chrysanthemums have long, tightly overlapping petals. They can be either incurve (where petals curve up and in toward the flower center) or reflex (where petals curve out and down, away from the flower center). Some of the most common decorative varieties are 'Coral Charm', with bright purple, pink, and peach petals, and 'Fireflash', which holds true to its name with firey orange- and yellow-colored petals.
Varieties to Try
Also known as button mums, these fluffy mums produce masses of small, petal-packed blooms in an abundance of colors. Some common varieties of the pom pom chrysanthemum are 'Tinkerbell', 'Barbara', 'Patriot', 'Ruby Mound', 'Garnet', and 'West Point', all possessing small, spherical flowers from summer to frost.
You may often mistake single and semidouble mums for daisies because they look so similar. These mums have one (single), or two to three (semidouble) outer flower petals, growing very close together from the center disk. These type of mums grow a stunning 1 to 3 feet tall, perfect for growing along a garden fence. Some of the most common single and semidouble varieties are 'Single Apricot Korean', with shades of peach, and 'Crimson Glory', with shades of deep, crimson red.
Varieties to Try
The name truly fits this type of mum, which sprouts beautiful spoon-shaped petals. These flowers only grow about 4 inches in diameter, making it a petite mum to add to your garden that won't take up too much space. The most popular of the spoon mums is 'Kimie', showing off golden yellow petals in a single row around a tight center disk.
Spider chrysanthemums look a lot like the quilled and anemone mums. The only difference is in their thin, spider-like petals! Some of the most common spider mums are 'Western Voodoo', sprouting colors of orange and yellow, 'Yellow Rayonnante', showing off curvy petals, and 'Seiko Fusui', containing long, yellow, spider-like petals.
Quilled mums resemble the single daisy type, only with the tubular petals. This is different from the full quill flower form, which is almost always seen only in florist, or decorative, mums. Some of the most popular varieties for quilled mums are 'Mammoth Yellow Quill', spikes of yellow, and 'Seatons Toffee', with red spikes resembles sparklers on the Fourth of July.
Resembling the long petals of 'Spider' and 'Spoon' mums, 'Anemone' has long petals, just more flat than it's semi-twin. This mum has one or more rows of single flat petals topped with a raised center of tiny disk florets. The florets are usually a darker color. These cute little flowers only grow about 4 inches in diameter, just like 'Spoon' mums. The most common anemone varieties include 'Dorothy Mechen', showing off light purple flowers, and 'Adrienne Mechen' a close cousin sprouting a pink center, trailing into bright white flowers at the tips.