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Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003 02:20 pm

Mums the word

Chrysanthemums add color to a fall garden

art460

Tip of the week
"Autumn Jewels" is the name of this year's mum show, November 8 through 23 at the Washington Park Botanical Gardens. The conservatory is open noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Don't miss this spectacular display of chrysanthemums.

By now your petunias are leggy, your marigolds have stopped blooming, and most of your other flowers look worn out. Hardy chrysanthemums--also known as garden mums--take over when summer annuals fizzle out. The blooming perennial, valued for its intense colors at the end of the growing season, has become the undisputed "Queen of the Fall Flowers."

Mums have been cultivated for nearly 3,000 years in China, where the plant was said to hold the power of life. Mums were introduced into the United States during colonial times. Today, the chrysanthemum is one of the leading cut flowers and potted plants in the U.S.

There is tremendous variety among mums. Colors include shades of yellow, pink, orange, bronze, red, purple, and white; there are even a few two-tones. Flowers range from one to six inches across in varying types, including buttons, ball-shaped pompons, daisy-like or singles, and showy football forms. Petals can be strappy or shaped like spoons, feathers, or threads. Plant heights range from six inches to three feet tall.

Mums are best planted in spring or early summer to assure better root establishment. In the spring, they may be purchased as four-inch potted plants, ordered from garden catalogs, or started from cuttings. They need a fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. Good drainage is key to winter survival. For the best showing, plant in masses or in groups of three to five. In the perennial garden, hardy mums look great alongside asters, sedums, or ornamental grasses.

Fall is a good time to visit nurseries to view mums in bloom. You can still plant them too--late August to early September is the second best time for planting, because the mums can get somewhat established before the onset of cold weather. Mums planted later in the fall do not become established and therefore may not survive the winter.

Mums have a shallow, fibrous root system, so water them thoroughly during hot, dry weather. Apply enough water to soak the soil to a depth of six inches. Mums are also heavy feeders and should be fertilized with a complete soluble fertilizer such as 10-10-10 (following the label's directions) when they are actively growing. They should not be fertilized more than three times a year; otherwise they'll get too large and top heavy. Cease fertilization when flower buds develop.

Chrysanthemums are a short day, long night plant, which means they naturally bloom as the days get shorter in the late summer. The period of darkness required to initiate blooming varies depending on the cultivar. By careful cultivar selection, a garden could have mums blooming from August through October.

To develop bushy plants that will produce numerous flowers, mums need to be pinched. Pinching refers to the removal of about one inch off the tip of each branch or shoot by snapping it or cutting it off. The first pinch is done when the plants are four to six inches tall; pinch again after six inches additional growth. You may continue to pinch plants until July 4.

Dead flowers should be trimmed off. After the ground freezes trim off the dead stems and place them back on top of the plant crown. This dead foliage--along with a three- to four-inch layer of organic mulch, such as shredded leaves or straw--will help protect roots from the frequent freezing and thawing of the soil in the winter.

Enjoy the fall color show. Learn more about the history of mums, classifications, and tips on growing mums at the National Chrysanthemum Society's Web site at http://www.mums.org/index.htm.

"Growing Kids"
By Christopher Anderson, Youth Development Educator, U. of I. Extension

Junior Master Gardener programs are designed to grow good kids by igniting their passion for learning, success, and service through gardening. They're geared to grades three through eight.

Youths are invited to join the Flower Buds 4-H Junior Master Gardener program when the group holds its first meeting of the school year from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, September 23, at the U. of I. Extension Building on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. For more information, contact Jennifer Fishburn or Chris Anderson at 782-4617.

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