Garden mums are easy option for fall color

virginia-newBurgundy, burnt orange, purple, pink and yellow are all colors of the hardy chrysanthemum, one of the most popular plants in Virginia’s fall gardens.

“People love mums,” said Chris Mullins, a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist at Virginia State University. “In the fall they’re one of the few plants that are blooming during September and October.”

Although related, garden mums are a different variety of plant from floral chrysanthemums, Mullins said. “These will do very well in most climates in Virginia. They do need a lot of water when they’re in pots. When they’ve been growing in a farmer’s field, they give them water every day.

“You want to water just about every day as you’re going into the fall. You might cut back a little bit as the season progresses,” he said. “In terms of fertilizer, they don’t need a whole lot. Sometimes the grower will put a little slow-release fertilizer in the pot, and as they’re blooming anyway they don’t need a lot of fertilizer.”

While many people simply throw away mums when the fall ends, the plants are perennials and can be planted outdoors for year-round enjoyment.

“You can buy smaller mums in early fall and plant them right in the ground,” he said. “They’ll probably over-winter for you. Find a nice, well-drained location. For the first couple of weeks you’ll want to water pretty heavily, to make sure that they get established well. You’ll have beautiful blooms throughout the fall.”

Mums prefer full sun but can thrive in partial shade as long as they get sun for half a day.

“When it freezes, you’ll notice all of the plant will kind of die back and look brown. I would leave all that plant material around to give it some protection through the winter,” Mullins said.

In the spring the plant will begin sprouting new shoots. That’s when you should start fertilizing and pruning back growth to create the rounded shape most gardeners prefer, he said.

“Probably sometime in May you’ll start to see some shoots coming up. Then you can go ahead and cut out all the old foliage. Those nice green shoots will probably be a few single stems at first.

“Go ahead and pinch those shoots back” an inch or two at a time, Mullins said. “This will force the plant to branch out and make itself more rounded. Otherwise it will get tall and leggy and tend to flop over when it blooms.

“Make a couple of pinches throughout the spring and summer, maybe the last pinch by the Fourth of July. That will also help delay flowering until the fall, when you want it to be pretty.”

Hardy mum transplants also can be purchased in the spring, Mullins said, but they will require maintenance throughout the growing season to look their best in the fall.

Mullins appears as a garden expert on Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s weekly television show Real Virginia.

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