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Mums: Fall in living color

Cushions of mums in sunny yellow, burnished red, autumnal orange and bright white carpet garden centers this time of year, begging to be placed in pots on front porches and in the midst of garden beds.

While many people buy mums as fall annuals and toss them once they’ve turned into brown sticks, there are ways to prolong the bloom, and even keep the plants coming back from year to year.

Mum varieties

Mums come in varieties that bloom early, mid-season and late. So when you go to the garden center and see a mum in full bloom, buy it if you want immediate color. Shop for those in emerging bloom or tight bud depending on when you want the fall show at your house. If you’re able, buy mums in each phase of bloom so that as one is going out of bloom another is coming on.

Hardy mums – the ones you find at garden centers vs. floral shops – can go into the ground after blooming in the fall to winter over and be pulled back out and into pots the next fall once your summer containers are exhausted, said Julie Sipe of Wichita, who has her own gardening business.

“That saves you some money,” Sipe said of back-planting the mums. “A lot of people just toss them, but if you have space in your yard, it sure is a nice way to save them.”

It’s best to plant potted mums in the ground as early as you can after they’ve done their duty on the porch so that their roots get established before the weather turns cold. But Sipe’s mother planted hers in late fall last year, and they have done great this year. That’s probably because of the mild winter and plenty of rain, which we can’t count on every year.

You can also leave mums in the ground as part of your perennial garden. Rather than thinking of buying them only in the fall, think about shopping for them in the spring. That’s when Arnold’s Greenhouse in LeRoy sells most of its Igloo mums, a relatively new variety that is supposed to be hardier, rebloom and require less care than other mums.

Arnold’s has some of the Igloo mums also available this fall along with more traditional varieties in daisy and pompon forms. “The reds and bronzes sell quickly, and I think the yellow are most popular,” Rita Arnold said.

Mum care

The Igloo mums are hardy to zone 3, the coldest zone in the U.S., and they bloom first in late spring/early summer.

“You enjoy those blooms, and when those blooms are spent you cut the plant back to 4 inches,” Arnold said. “You do not do the traditional pinch that’s usually done before the 10th of July. You do this one shear, then by late August, first of September they are 2 to 3 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide and completely covered in blooms. They do have that kind of igloo shape.”

For mums in the ground, once they’ve died back after a hard frost, Arnold recommends leaving the stems intact to grab any snow that falls and any leaves for a natural mulch to protect the crowns during the winter. In early spring, as soon as you start to see new growth, remove the old growth.

You can also start fertilizing at that time, using Osmocote for a long-term, slow-release. Arnold uses Nature’s Source fertilizer at least once a week when watering.

Mums require full sun and soil that drains well, meaning they may have trouble in clay. Amend heavy soil with organic matter before planting mums.

Traditional mums need a hard pinch by mid-spring, taking stems down to about 3 inches right above a leaf node, Arnold said. “Every place you make that pinch, they will send out four new branches, and that really multiplies the amount of buds you’ll eventually get.”

Then the mums need another soft pinch no later than July 10. “You’ll be pinching off buds if you go later,” Arnold said.

Other fall plants

Shop garden centers during the fall for other ideas as well. Asters are perennials like mums. Then there are pansies and violas that will bloom into the winter and then come back at the earliest opportunity at thaw. Ornamental kales and cabbages offer frilly and colorful cold-proof foliage. Stock is a cool-season annual that’s fragrant, Arnold said. Be sure to water the plants occasionally during the winter in the absence of natural moisture.

You can also plant edibles such as spinach and Swiss chard. Spinach will give you a harvest this fall and will come back again in the spring for another harvest.

And don’t forget to shop for fall color in trees while they are in color at garden centers. That’s the best way to ensure you’re getting the color you want.

Ornamental plants for fall

  • Mums
  • Asters
  • Pansies and violas
  • Stock
  • Ornamental kale and cabbage