One of the ways I knew this wasn’t going to be an ordinary summer in my garden was when I noticed a chrysanthemum trying to bloom in May.
Chrysanthemums are fall flowers! Well, sort of. In their native Asia they’re actually long-blooming late-summer flowers, which is how they came to be symbolically associated with longevity in Chinese and Japanese culture. The mums that go on sale starting around September have been pinched back and manipulated to make them bloom later.
Often these are labeled “hardy mums,” which is a stretch. Chrysanthemums are perennials in Asia, and some older cultivars probably could make it through a Chicago winter with mulch. But the big yellow, orange and purple cannonballs we see in farm stands and garden centers have been bred more for color and numerous blooms than for winter hardiness.
That doesn’t stop me from taking a chance and planting a potted mum out in the garden when it stops blooming, because what do I have to lose? Might as well give it a shot on the way to the compost pile. One or two plants have surprised me by surviving, and, having been startled into early growth by the spring hot spell, tried to bloom months early this year.
I pinched them back, which makes mums branch more densely and delays their flowering. Sadly, they had been drought-killed by midsummer. Mums do need a steady water supply.
If I really want chrysanthemums in my fall garden, I should buy genuinely hardy cultivars, plant them in the spring like normal perennials and keep pinching them back until the Fourth of July if I want to delay their bloom until September. Then I’ll need to deadhead them to keep them flowering until they are killed by the first serious frost.
Chrysanthemums are one of the flowering crops that grow in a new 13-by-26-foot Hartley greenhouse on Ed and Sharon Hudon’s horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky. They also use the greenhouse to grow orchids and spring annuals that are lavished among the stables and pastures. The greenhouse enables them to have color all year. “We’ve got beautiful plants in there,” Ed says.
If you’re buying your mums, ignore the “hardy” on the label and think of them as annuals. Remember that the plants have been heavily juiced with fertilizer and growth regulators, and you will have to keep feeding and watering them. Turn up your nose at a plant already covered in fully-opened flowers; you want a plant that will do its blooming in your garden. Choose one that’s mostly still in bud, with just one or two barely opened flowers to confirm the color, and pinch off spent blooms to keep the color coming.