Chrysanthemums – the gorgeous glories of autumn

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Tue., Oct. 2, 2012
- Contributed Photo

Along with pumpkins, apples and falling leaves, the arrival of the autumn season is heralded by the blaze of chrysanthemums. These very, very old garden flowers were cultivated by the Chinese at least as early as the 5th century B.C. To the Japanese, they symbolize a long and happy life, while the Victorians associated these bright flowers with cheerfulness.

From China and Japan, chrysanthemums made their way to Europe, and eventually to America. This is a very large genus made up of more than 100 species. Most common garden mums, however, are hybrids of Chrysanthemum x morifolium. Several thousand cultivars have been developed over the years, with the older ones being continuously replaced by new, improved varieties.

Mums come in a huge array of flower colors, shapes and sizes. Charming singles resemble daisies. Doubles and pompoms sport dozens of gaily-colored petals. Curious spoons, quills and spiders add an interesting variation to the garden.

Most garden mums are hardy to USDA zone 5. These are the ones sold this time of year at your local garden centers and nurseries, not the florist mums which are often available year-round, for holiday gift-giving.

The main reason that “hardy” mums fail to survive the winter is that they are planted too late in the season for their roots to get established and anchor the plants. The freeze/thaw cycles heave the plants out of the ground, their roots are exposed to the elements, and the plants die. Mums are shallow-rooted plants. Get them in the ground as early as possible to allow for good root establishment. Also, when selecting plants, choose those with a lot of basal sprouts (tufts of growth coming up from the soil). These are most likely to successfully over-winter.

Small, rooted cuttings purchased by mail order in the spring are another way to ensure greater winter survival. While they may look small at the beginning of summer, by fall they will have become quite sizeable plants and they have had all season to establish themselves. Position them about 18 inches apart for maximum development.

For really spectacular results, these shallow-rooted plants require adequate water and fertilizer throughout the growing season. Start by working in 3 to 4 pounds of a 5-10-10, or the equivalent of a natural organic fertilizer, per 100 square feet at the beginning of the growing season. Once a month during the summer until plants begin to color, fertilize with a water-soluble fertilizer, either synthetic or natural organic, as directed on the label. Adjust the soil pH to between 6.5 to 6.8 for optimum growth and flowering.

Chrysanthemums flower more on sunnier sites. Too much shade will produce spindly plants with few blossoms. In dry years, make sure plants receive at least 1 inch of water per week.

Pinching mums is essential for bushy, floriferous plants. Start nipping off the growth tips when the plants reach 5 inches in height. Let them put on another 5 inches of growth and pinch again. Repeat this process for the last time about July 15.

Usually plants need to be divided every third year. Not only will this give you plenty of plants to spread throughout your gardens, but the healthier, uncrowded mums will reward you with loads of blossoms.

Winter protection is a good idea for mums planted this fall. After Thanksgiving, cut back the stems to about 5 inches and allow leaves to collect around the plants. I find this works really well and does not require much effort on my part. If you really are not happy with this look, then cover the stems with 5 or 6 inches of evergreen boughs or straw mulch after the ground freezes.

October is a favorite month of mine for many reasons, but the spectacular display of chrysanthemums is definitely one of them. For questions about mums, or any other home or gardening topic, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 877-486-6271, visit, or contact your local UConn Cooperative Extension Center.

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