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Learning to Grow: Chrysanthemums consistently steal the autumn show

Published: Friday, Oct. 5, 2012 5:58 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Provided photo)
Chrysanthemums look festive lined up in a window box, dotted among foundation plantings, along walkways and through flower beds, or grouped together in containers like a wheel barrel.

Today, I’m going to let you in on a secret that, as a gardener with a reputation to think about, I probably shouldn’t share: I love autumn.

I love everything about this time of year, from the chill in the air to the gourds on tables and pumpkins on porches.

I love picking apples and baking them into pies or dipping them in caramel. I love the shortened days and the smell of smoke wafting out of chimneys high above the hearth where I know there’s a crackling fire.

The truth is, I’d like to take this whole season out for a hot cider, and maybe try to hold its hand while we walk home beneath a big, gold harvest moon.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall. He may have been a fool in love, but when it comes to the weather, I think the old boy was onto something.

We all know that autumn is the time to get bulbs like tulips and daffodils in the ground. It’s also a great time to plant, or transplant, trees, shrubs, and some perennials as well.

The cooler air temperatures and warmer soils help many plants get established quickly. And you won’t have to worry about the stress a long, hot, dry summer can place on your new additions. If you’ve planned your garden for fall interest, the ornamental grasses, asters, sedums, helianthus (perennial sunflower), and heliopsis (false sunflower) are having their day, well, in the sun.

But the plant that consistently steals the autumn show, and my heart, is the chrysanthemum. With colorful blooms that last for weeks, and hundreds of cultivars to choose from, finding the perfect plant for your space is simple.

They look festive lined up in a window box or grouped in containers, and are darling dotted among foundation plantings, along walkways, and through flowerbeds. Mums are photoperiodic, which means they love the shorter days as much as I do, and bloom in response to the change in length.

And since a wide variety of mums are hardy from zones 5-9, with a little care they can be grown as perennials as well as annuals here in Illinois.

When shopping for mums, you may notice that two types are commonly available – garden mums and florist mums.

While florist mums have large flowers with various types of, often showy, blooms, they have been greenhouse grown and are intended for indoor or short-term outdoor use.

Due to their fragile root system they will never survive a winter outside. Garden mums, on the other hand, produce stolons, horizontal underground shoots, that better equip them to face northern winters and survive from year to year.

If you do hope to overwinter your mums, planting in the spring is recommended, but you may have luck in the fall if you get them in the ground early – at least six weeks before the first hard frost, mulch heavily, and resist pruning them back, as the old foliage aids their survival. Even then they may not make it.

But something else to love about this season is the day you rake the last of the leaves and mulch the last shrub. You can wish your garden sweet dreams, and put it to bed.

• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. Call the Extension office at 630-584-6166.

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