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Garden Guru: Chrysanthemums are a harbinger of autumn

By John Porter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Aah, the signs of autumn are all around ... starting school (though this has crept dangerously into summer), high school and college football seasons, marching bands and Labor Day.

The cool, crisp autumn is my favorite time of year for many reasons -- the weather, the color, my birthday (Sept. 28; gifts welcome -- just kidding). Though autumn has not made its official debut on the calendar, the signs are all around us.

One sure way to see the beginning of autumn in the gardening world is by the arrival of chrysanthemums in garden centers and markets. They put on a colorful show of warm fall colors that liven up the home and the landscape when everything else has worn out at the end of the year.

There are several species of chrysanthemum that occur in the wild, and the modern garden mum is the result of likely centuries of hybridization of these wild species. The first recorded cultivation of the colorful flower was as a flowering herb in China in the 15th century B.C. It is one of the "four gentlemen" representing autumn in Chinese art, sharing that distinction with the plum blossom (winter), the orchid (spring) and bamboo (summer). You might recognize these four in combination if you've ever played the tile game mahjongg.

In the eighth century A.D., the chrysanthemum made its way to Japan, where it became the symbol of the Japanese emperor. Still today it adorns the Japanese imperial flag, and the emperor sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne. The fall flower made its way to the United States in 1798 as an introduction to the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J. (who would have guessed?).

Aside from looking pretty, mums do have a few other uses. Asian countries do use mums as food, with some species used for tea. They also are used to flavor rice wine in Korea, as a sashimi garnish in Japan and even as an accompaniment to a type of snake soup.

But outside of planting them, the most common use of chrysanthemums is as an insecticide. The flower Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium is also known as the pyrethrum daisy and is the source of the organic insecticide pyrethrum, which is extracted from its fruit. It is one of the most common broad-spectrum insecticides in use today and is relatively safe, biodegradable and breaks down in sunlight.

Today's garden mums have come a long way from their very simple beginning, with a variety of different flower shapes and colors to choose from. There are some good tips and tricks to make sure that the mums that you buy are top quality and will last in your landscape or on your porch for a long time this autumn.

Mum's the word

Tip 1: Don't buy mums that are bloomed all the way out. I would suggest buying plants that have only a hint of color on the buds, just so you know the color you are getting. The less the plant is bloomed when you buy it, the longer it will last when you get it home. If you are planning on planting it in the ground with a hope of having it come back (more on this later) this will also help.

Tip 2: Buy the size you want. Once mums have reached their flowering size for the year, they aren't going to get much bigger. If you want a huge plant, you've got to buy a huge plant. But remember, the bigger the plant, the bigger the price tag.

Tip 3: Keep your chrysanthemum display simple and choose no more than two or three complementary colors. This will look better than a variety of colors. Some places are now selling complementary colored plants in the same pot. Also remember that darker colors are more forgiving when flowers start to fade and brown -- they will look better a little longer than light colors.

Tip 4: As flowers fade, keep them pinched off. This will make the plant look nicer longer and can help keep existing blooms fresher longer.

Tip 5: Yes, they need water. If you plant them in the ground, they will need more water than you think since their roots aren't fully developed. If you keep them in pots, remember that pots dry pretty quickly. The smaller the pot, the quicker it dries out.

How hardy?

Most of the mums you will find are labeled "hardy," which is technically true. The mums you find in the autumn are hybrids that are supposed to be hardy and live as perennials in the garden. However, these flowers have been bred and babied to give such a knockout show in one season, it is often difficult to get them to overwinter.

While it may be a long shot, if you want to try it you will need to buy and plant the flowers as early as possible in the season. I would also suggest that you remove many of the buds before they bloom to save more energy for the roots to develop. You also need to remove any spent blossoms as soon as they begin to fade.

I would also fertilize with a "starter" fertilizer that has a good amount of potassium and phosphorous in it. If you are serious about incorporating perennial mums into the garden, you would have better luck by finding a nursery that carries perennial mums for spring planting.

Garden with Master Gardeners

The Kanawha County Extension Master Gardeners are organizing a day of service for the Governor's Day of Service on Sept. 14. The Master Gardeners are inviting the public to join them in beautification projects at the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Society's Animal Shelter.

There will be a variety of projects for people of all levels of ability; individuals, community and youth organizations are encouraged to join in the fun. This will be a great opportunity to give back to the community and learn to garden with the Master Gardeners. Opportunities will be available from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information or to RSVP for yourself or your group, contact me at 304-720-9573.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.


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