29. MUMS

Chrysanthemums are among the easiest perennials to grow in a garden. Their palette includes every color but blue, and the holding time for blossoms, even in a vase, is measured in weeks rather than days.

Gardeners have been enjoying mums for more than 2,000 years. By A.D. 400, these plants were the craze among Chinese gardeners. Today, most of the best kinds for North American gardens are known simply as garden mums, and are botanically classified as Dendranthea grandiflorum. This is a rather new name, and many catalogs still use the old name of Chrysanthemum morifolium.

A lesser known but very hardy, early-blooming type, Chrysanthemum rubellum -- particularly the varieties 'Clara Curtis' and 'Mary Stoker' -- are top choices for gardeners in USDA Zones 4 and 5.

As you might expect with a flower that's been in cultivation for so long, the pedigree of garden mums is impossible to trace. Most of the plants sold in garden centers are labeled "cushion" mums -- a huge group of compact varieties bred to flower like gangbusters in pots, or to be massed into vivid border plantings. The Prophets Series from Yoder Brothers (the largest producer of chrysanthemums in the U.S.) is this type, as are hundreds of other named varieties.

All of the most popular Prophets have the "decorative" flower form, that is, dahlia like blossoms so packed with long, broad petals that you can hardly see their center eyes, even when the flowers are completely open. One of the advantages of the decorative flower form is that the many layers of petals make the flowers last a long, long time. As the petals on the back of the blossom fade, new ones from the center give the flower a freshly opened appearance.

Since fall brings frost, which has a bad habit of turning mum petals brown, choose mums with bloom times that match what your climate has to offer. Mums bloom in fall because the shortening days (and lengthening nights) of late summer trigger flowering. Some react more quickly than others, and these are the early bloomers. Midseason and late bloomers respond more slowly to changes in day length. Throughout much of the U.S., gardeners can extend bloom season by combining early, midseason, and late-blooming varieties.

Where freezes come early, you need early-blooming mums. And wherever you live, you'll be happiest with mums that bloom after the hottest summer weather has passed, yet still have five to six weeks to dazzle before the first 26°F frost, which kills flowers.

How to Grow Chrysanthemums
The best time to plant chrysanthemums is in the spring, though you also can plant them through summer and into early fall. The earlier you plant, the longer your mums will have to develop good root systems -- a crucial factor in determining winter hardiness. All chrysanthemums need full sun in the North and always well-drained soil.

If you can save some space until spring, you can help yourself to the huge selections of garden-worthy varieties offered by specialist mail-order companies, which ship only in spring. Mail-order mums are single-stemmed rooted cuttings, which begin growing rapidly as soon as they are planted.

To grow stocky, heavy-flowering plants, pinching back the growing tips is essential. Pinch off the top 1 to 2 inches of growth when taller varieties are 6 to 9 inches high and shorter varieties are 4 to 5 inches high. Repeat every three to five weeks until early July, more frequently with the most dwarf varieties. But in most of the country, pinch them the first time on Memorial Day, and the second time on the Fourth of July.

As long as chrysanthemums have good drainage, they are not picky about soil. They often bloom without any fertilizer, but growth is better if you mulch them lightly in early summer with well-rotted manure or rich compost.

By the time garden mums have finished blooming, you may want to cut them back. Don't! In cold climates, the dead branches catch blowing leaves and snow, and often manage to collect just the right amount of protective mulch.

Trimming off dead blossoms and wayward branches is fine, but as the mum experts say, "Nature doesn't trim back the dead branches in winter, and neither should you."

Early winter is also the worst possible time to dig up mums, which often show a few feathery stems of new green growth near the base before winter. These delicate shoots are the plants' lifeline through winter. Chrysanthemums that put out a lot of new shoots often show excellent winter hardiness

Opinion varies on how often garden mums need to be dug and divided. Some say every spring, others say every second spring, and some say every three. Before you decide, consider this idea: You can flank your mums with large-flowered daffodils or fancy tulips, which provide much-needed spring color while chrysanthemums are at low ebb (and vice versa). These bulbs often require dividing or replacing after two or three years, just like mums.

Remember those little green shoots that you nursed through winter-- Around the time of your last spring frost, simply dig and divide some of these, and transplant them to new homes or pots. Pots are ideal if you must wait until bulb foliage dies back to renovate your bed.

Few plants develop roots as rapidly as chrysanthemums. After a few weeks in a pot, a skimpy little plant will become healthy and well-rooted, though in northern or short-season areas you won't get much of a plant or many blooms that first year. You can also root the stem tips you pinch from your plants in spring by sticking them in damp potting soil, sand, or vermiculite. Even with no help from rooting powder, stem cuttings will start rooting within a week.

At this point I must insert a warning: Growing chrysanthemums can be habit-forming. Collecting and showing them is addictive. Whether you want to compete or simply collect mums, the National Chrysanthemum Society has 35 chapters across the country. Membership costs $20 per year, and the society also publishes inexpensive pamphlets on the finer points of mum culture. For more information, visit the Society's Web site at www.mums.org.

How to Transplant a Blooming Mum
Spring is the best time to plant chrysanthemums, but you can set out blooming plants in fall if you're careful.

Here's how to help them survive their first winter in the ground.
To overwinter them in Vermont, plant on well- drained soil in a protected spot such as along a house. Cold, wet soils are a death knell for chrysanthemums. Once the flowers fade, cut the plant to the ground and cover it with 2 to 3 inches of bark mulch.

Select bushy, well-branched plants with small, leafy stems emerging from the base of the plants, or sprouting around the edge of the pot.

Choose a very well-drained location. More fall-planted mums die from root rot than from the effects of low temperatures.

Dig a planting hole twice as wide as the plant's root ball.

Set each plant in the planting hole 1 inch deeper than it grew in its nursery pot; spread out the roots.

After cold weather kills the flowers and leaves, water only if the soil becomes very dry. Trim back tops very slightly, mostly to remove dead blossoms.

Leave plants un-mulched until Christmas. If by then you have no snow cover, lay conifer boughs over the plants' crowns.

Should you decide to move your mum, wait until near the time of your last spring frost. That's the best time to dig and divide any garden chrysanthemum.

Top Garden Chrysanthemums
Even though there are hundreds of good varieties of chrysanthemums available, the advice of experts in various regions resulted in this short list of the most outstanding or noteworthy. The list is divided into two categories based upon plant height. The short ones, often called "cushion" mums, grow 12 to 15 inches tall. The tallest mums reach some 30 inches tall.

Dwarf or cushion varieties that grow to 15 inches tall:

'Debonair'
Color: Dark lavender.
Flower type and bloom season: Decorative; early.
Bushy and hardy, a good Yoder Prophet to buy in bloom now and plant in your garden.

Tall, upright varieties that grow to 30 inches:

'Sarah'
Color: Golden butterscotch.
Flower type and bloom season: Quilled-decorative; late.
Large, 2 1/2- to 3-inch flowers develop from an exceptionally strong plant.

'Carousel'
Color: Silver amethyst.
Flower type and bloom season: Quill; early.
Large 4-inch blossoms on tall, 30-inch plants.

'Clara Curtis'
Color: Light pink.
Flower type and bloom season: Daisy; very early.
Strong 18- to 25-inch plants.

'Dolliette'
Color: Yellow with red-bronze petal tips.
Flower type and bloom season: Open quill; midseason to late.
Quilled 2-inch blossoms with darker petal tips create vivid effect.

'Grandchild'
Color: Lavender with red-violet center.
Flower type and bloom season: Pompom; early to midseason.
Compact, bushy, 18-inch tall plants are hardy, sturdy and permanent.

'Maroon Pride'
Color: Dark red.
Flower type and bloom season: Double, single, or daisy; early. Shaggy, 3-inch, double blossoms on vigorous mounded plants. Super hardy, released in 1991 by the University of Minnesota.

'Single Apricot' ('Hillside Sheffield Pink')
Color: Pastel apricot pink.
Flower type and bloom season: Single or daisy; midseason.
Hardy, dependable, and heavy blooming, 30-inch plants.

SOURCE: This information came from Barbara Pleasant - Organic Gardening & Real Food Expert
Barbara is a garden writer from Floyd County, Virginia. Her websites is: BarbaraPleasant.com;