The chrysanthemum, the unofficial flower of fall, is blooming in bright gold, purple, orange and bronze at farm stands, garden centers and home improvement stores everywhere.
Mums are inexpensive, easy to keep alive all fall, and a great way to add color to an autumn landscape.
Plopping a few in front of the house or around the lamp post might seem like a no-brainer, but before you go out and buy the first ones that catch your eye, local growers have some advice on how to make an educated purchase.
The mums sold locally generally are one of two varieties, according to Cindy Barber of Barber’s Farm in Middleburgh, which grows between 2,000 and 3,000 mums annually. The old-fashioned type of mum has a vase-shaped growth habit and rigid stems. Belgian Mums, a trademarked breed, have a mounded growth habit and flexible stems that break less easily than those of their traditional counterparts.
Some of the latest mum varieties will shoot up a second bud above the original bloom, for longer-lasting color, she noted.
Every year, typically 20 new varieties come onto the market, but aside from variations in color, they aren’t dramatically different from those grown in years past, said Bill McKenna, co-owner of Harvest Time in Burnt Hills.
At Sunnyside Gardens in Saratoga Springs, owner Ned Chapman grows approximately 200 different shades of mums, some as large as two feet across.
“By the time we have them ready for the consumer, the hard part is done. At that point, the consumer really only has to water,” he noted.
If jumbo mum plants are on the shopping list, a big box store’s not the place to look, said McKenna.
Growers that ship to mega-stores often douse their mums with growth retardants, he explained.
“It’s really not in their best interest to have them too big or to be too demanding where they require a lot more space and time,” he said.
The smaller the plants are, the more of them that can fit on an 18-wheeler to be shipped out to stores, he said.
Growth retardants don’t affect the plant’s appearance, but if you’re expecting the mum to increase in size while it’s part of your fall display, don’t hold your breath.
“They stall the thing out. It doesn’t die, it just sits,” McKenna said, noting that the flowers will also open more slowly when a growth inhibitor has been used.
Small, local greenhouses are less likely to use such products, he said.
For a perennial show that doesn’t require an annual shopping trip, you can plant mums in the ground, instead of in planters.
It’s best to do it by early October, so the root system has time to develop before the first hard frost hits, Barber said.
The odds of the plants coming up again in spring are about 50/50, McKenna estimated. But those odds can be tipped in your favor if the mum’s roots are submerged in a hole at least twice the size of the root ball and the hole is filled in with a mixture of soil and a soil conditioner like peat moss. Watering deeply will encourage the roots to grow down further into the soil, which can help shelter them from the danger of premature thaws and subsequent freezes.
If the mums do survive the winter, they’ll likely bloom before it’s time to put out the cornstalks and pumpkins, Barber noted.
“It wouldn’t necessarily be a fall flower, but more of a late summer flower,” she said.