Fall is Time for Mums

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Fall is in the air and anyone who is anybody is planting mums. The chrysanthemum, or in this case the hardy garden mum brings a quick splash of color to our gardens when all the other flowers in our gardens are waning. At a time when your roses are getting ready for a long winter’s nap the garden mum is ready to brighten your garden and lift your spirits. The hardy garden mum comes in a multitude of colors that can literally bring the rainbow into your flower beds.

When I worked at a couple of the local garden centers where I was employed as a nursery technician I was amazed by the number of customers who would come in and say that they wanted to get their yearly mums for their gardens. Invariably most customers would say that their mums didn’t make it through the winter and they wanted new ones to bring color and cheer to their gardens. This doesn’t have to be the case: with minimal care you can keep those beautiful mums coming back for many years to come. And I do mean minimal care. Even if you don’t have a green thumb if you follow a few simple steps you will amaze your friends and neighbors with the bounty of beautiful mums that keep coming back year after year.

The first step is to purchase healthy plants from your local garden center. At this time of the year mums are for sale everywhere. The local drug store, the grocery store, roadside produce stands and flea markets to name a few. The problem is, the mums you see at places such as the drug store receive minimal care by store employees who know absolutely nothing about the proper care of bedding plants. Just yesterday I stopped at a local drug store which I shall not name and by the entrance they had a large display of six inch pots of mums that looked like they were on their last legs. Had these mums been in my care while I worked at the garden centers I would most likely have been sent packing. Those mums were so pitiful that they should have been put into the dumpster. The price on these sad sacks was 2 for $9.00. Unfortunately most people think that flowers at a local garden center are going to be much more expensive, but that is not the case. Compare the beautiful, extremely large plants in eight inch pots in the above picture. Those beauties were 4 for $18.00 at my local garden center. During my storied past I have been an Ohio Certified Nursery Technician and a dedicated amateur botanist and I can tell you that buying healthy and beautiful plants at your local garden center not only pays dividends in the long run but most of the time is no more expensive than the big box stores that try to flim-flam into thinking they have educated, dedicated personnel who’s only purpose in life is to sell you the best plants available. That just isn’t the case!

The next step in caring for your mums is the easiest  – just plant them and enjoy. The only tip I might give you for planting is to examine the roots. Quite often the roots on those massive plants such as the ones I purchased can be crowded in the pot. Just take a knife or your pruning shears and nick the roots a little. This will help promote the growth of feeder roots which will help the plants get established before winter rears its ugly head. Do not give the plants any fertilizer at all. This will only promote weak growth at a time when the plants will not be able to sustain that growth. A little bone meal in the bottom of the planting hole is the only thing you should give the plants other than a healthy drink of water when planting.

After planting sit back and enjoy your mums until winter comes. Once the first frosts bring an unwanted end to the colorful flowers on your plants comes the next step in insuring that you have mums from your own garden next year. That step is, don’t instinctively cut down your mums. Using my technique of keeping your mums from year to year is to leave the stems on the plants. What you need to do is wait for a period where you get two or three days when the temperatures stay below freezing constantly. Then you can cut off the flower heads leaving the now brown stems. The next step is to mulch the plants with six to eight inches of mulch or dead leaves that you have raked up from your yard; you can even mound dirt on top of the plants if you want. The idea here is to let the root balls of the plants freeze and then mulch them in order to keep the roots cold all winter. The main reason mums and certain other plants have difficulty making it through the winter is that the vagaries of winters in our area don’t keep some plants constantly in dormancy throughout the winter. Mums are especially prone to wanting to start to grow when we have periods of warm weather in the middle of winter. Once we have a few days of warm weather mums will want to start growing again and if any amount of new growth takes place it will be quickly killed off when the freeze comes back. If you mulch your mums correctly the roots will be kept cold during that January thaw and stay asleep as they should.

When warm weather does come along in the spring you can remove the mulch once the ground has warmed and you see signs of new growth at the base of the mum plants. Now that spring is here and new growth on your mums is quite evident it is time to cut off the old growth. Cut the brown stems down to a nubbin and let the plants develop an inch or two of new growth. Next we are going to use the division technique I wrote about in my last blog about dividing irises and daylilies. I like to lift the entire root ball, shake off the dirt and then divide the plant. Mums spread by sending out stolen and you can actually see what can be new viable mum plants by looking closely at the roots. After dividing the plants place your new plants 24 inches apart because what I am going to have you do next is the same practice that is used in your local garden center. The way they get those huge, beautiful, round mum plants is by pinching the plant stems at regular intervals. The method I use is to pinch the stems after every second leaf of new growth. I usually do this until somewhere around August 7-14. This may be a little late to make the last pinch of your mums. Most commercial growers make the last pinch of their mum plants on August 1st. This insures showy blooms during fall’s peak color time. I like to do it a little later because I like to try and keep blooms on my mums until Halloween. I know it is a little risky because we quite often get a killing frost before Halloween. But, I stay prepared with plenty of newspapers to cover my mums to protect them. Otherwise give your mums a little fertilizer on the first of every month until July 1st. As I said before any fertilizer at a late date just promotes weak growth that most likely can’t be sustained.

If you follow these few simple steps you can have beautiful mums that keep coming back year after year. Who knows you may even wind up with enough to set up your own roadside stand next fall.

It’s Dividing Time Again, Iris’s Gonna Leaf Me

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The fourteenth day of September is an important day for me or should I say it is an important day for my garden. September fourteenth is the day that I start to divide my irises. The iris is my favorite flower (see my photo blog Spectacular Irises ). Irises are beautiful flowers that will provide years of spectacular blooms but they do require a little care. With the proper care prized heirloom irises can be passed down from generation to generation. Besides proper planting the most important thing in order to have healthy and long lived irises is that they should be divided every two or three years. If they are not divided they may seem to be healthy for a number of years but eventually they become overgrown, susceptible to disease, and rotting. Left to their own devices the clump of irises that you love so may simply die out from neglect.

To divide irises first take the entire clump out of the ground using a large shovel or pitchfork. Place the clump on the ground and knock off as much dirt as possible. Once all the dirt is off inspect the plant for damage. If irises are left in the ground for more than a couple of years they will grow outward from old growth usually leaving an unproductive and possibly diseased or rotting center. Once you have identified the center of the clump break off or pull apart the individual rhizomes. A rhizome is difficult to describe but easily identifiable. It looks somewhat like a cross between a root, and a tuber. It has roots growing off of it and has a gnarly appearance. One of the main reasons for waiting until September fourteenth to divide my irises is that the eyes which will provide new flowers now begin to appear on the base of the rhizomes. The iris eyes look like small onion sets and may be a half inch in diameter down to a mere nubbin, just a tiny bump on the rhizome. If you have trouble identifying the eyes at least make sure you get a healthy looking rhizome with a full fan of leaves on it. Chances are it will have at least a developing eye on it even if you can’t readily see it. Once you have separated the rhizomes discard the unproductive center. Examine the separated rhizomes carefully for insect holes, rotted centers, and any other signs of disease and discard any that are doubtful. Once you have done this give the roots and leaves a haircut. The reason for trimming the leaves is to lessen the demands on the roots after the dividing process. Intuitively one would think that all the roots should be kept intact but giving them a quick trimming helps to promote the growth of the fine feeder roots during the fall and gives the plant a chance to establish a sturdy foundation before winter arrives. If you have any rooting powder or solution it helps to treat the roots to stimulate new growth. The last thing I do is to dust the wounds where I broke the rhizomes off with sulfur dust. This helps to prevent disease and infections of the wounded plant.

Next comes planting your new iris plants. This is probably the most important step in the cultivation of irises. Irises must be planted with the top half of the rhizome out of the ground and exposed to the air and sun. If irises are planted completely underground they will quickly rot and soon die. Like all plants irises need moisture to grow; but they need well drained and dry soil conditions, otherwise they will struggle to survive. If you have ever been working in your garden around irises and smelled a powerful stench that smells something between rotting flesh and rotting garbage you probably have encountered an iris that was planted completely underground in wet conditions. If you look closely you will most likely see that the center of the clump is rotting and if left unattended the entire clump will eventually die out. When planting iris rhizomes dig a hole large enough in diameter to accommodate the rhizome and deep enough that the roots have plenty of room. Once you have the hole dug, take some of the excavated dirt and form a firm mound of dirt as high as the level of the surrounding ground. Place the rhizome on top of the dirt mound and spread the roots out around it. Then backfill the hole around the roots making sure that the top of the rhizome is exposed. Pat the dirt firmly in place and water liberally. Do Not ! I repeat – Do Not fertilize the newly planted iris. The last thing you want to do with any perennial flower is to promote new leaf and stem growth going into winter. The new growth will not be strong enough to survive the winter and it decreases the chances of the new plant surviving into spring. If you just can’t resist doing something to help the plant grow you can sprinkle a little bone meal on the bottom of the hole before planting.

Dividing my irises can sometimes take a couple of weeks, After I am done with the irises I turn my attention to my daylilies. I divide my daylilies not for the health of the plant but for propagation reasons. While daylilies can be divided in the spring I have found that I get the best results dividing my daylilies in late September. There are two ways to divide daylilies. One way is to simply chomp down trough the plant with a shovel, or in the case of some of the larger daylilies use an axe or even a saw to cut apart the larger clumps. I prefer to dig the entire plant out of the ground and then looking for the natural forming smaller clumps within the larger plant. On smaller daylilies such as the Stella D’Oro you can identify and pull apart the divisions with great success. I have taken 5 or so Stella D’Oro daylilies and multiplied them into dozens of plants.

I have one last dividing tip for those of you who might have read my spring blog Butterfly Gardening. If you would like to have more butterfly bushes in your garden try the following method of propagation. Snip seven or eight pencil thick cuttings about six inches long from your butterfly bush. Be sure to make the bottom cut just below a leaf node on a forty-five degree diagonal. Make the top cut just above a leaf node, again on a forty-five degree diagonal. Tie the cuttings together with string and bury the cuttings about five or six inches deep in your garden. Mark the location of your cuttings in some way that will last through the winter so that you can find them in the spring. Resist the temptation to check on their progress during the early spring: leave them in the ground until late May when temperatures have risen and the ground has warmed. If you are lucky you may be rewarded with one or two new butterfly bushes.

Flower gardening doesn’t have to be and expensive affair. Using the division technique of propagating plants can not only save a lot money, it also provides a great deal of satisfaction.

Late September and early October is also the time to plant spring flowering bulbs, such as tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils. Plant the bulbs three to four times the height of the bulb. Adding a little bone meal to the bottom of the planting hole will help root growth and give the bulbs a head start heading into winter.

With a little work and some planning, you will be well rewarded for your efforts with a bevy of beautiful blooms next spring.