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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.


One of the most common questions I'm asked each fall is "What kind of mum should I plant that will definitely survive the winter?" While it is definitely more challenging to find mums for sale this time of year, planting mums in the spring is one way to increase the odds that they will survive the winter, since they will be thoroughly rooted and established before winter winds blow.

There are many different varieties of mums out there. There are approximately 30 different species in the genus Chrysanthemum. There used to be a lot more species in the genus, but as is the case in science, botanists have refined their original classifications and split the once enormous genus into several smaller ones.

Chrysanthemums are believed to have originated in China, where it was cultivated as an herb as early as 15 B.C. The flower and plant have many medicinal uses in Chinese medicine. Around 8 A.D. chrysanthemums were introduced into Japan. In both Asian nations the flower has gained great respect is symbolic of nobleness and honor.

As species, Chrysanthemum flowers aren't all that spectacular. Efforts of plant breeders are responsible for the wide range of flower color, form, and size seen today.

Based on flower form alone, there are 13 different classes. Each of those classes contains dozens of varieties. Not only do the flower shapes differ, but so do countless other traits, such as flower color, plant height, leaf shape, and importantly, hardiness. With so many varieties available, plant breeders routinely cross varieties with each other in hopes of generating a new flower that everyone "has" to have. As a result, hardiness does vary a great deal among chrysanthemums.

Unfortunately, there is no way of telling whether a mum will survive the winter just by looking at it. Even those labeled as "hardy" may not survive cold winter weather.

To improve the likelihood that a mum will survive the winter, here are three useful tips:

  • Plant early. Plant mums as early as possible so that their roots will grow and become established in your garden. If you can find mums to plant in the spring, they will be well-established by the time cold winds howl.
  • Choose a protected location. Garden areas next to buildings, or otherwise protected spots out of the wind are your best choices.
  • Use mulch. Mulching insulates roots and minimizes temperature swings that can damage tender young shoots. Do not cover the crowns until the ground freezes to discourage rodents from feeding on mums. Leave dead upper parts of plants in place until spring— it helps hold mulch in place, and offers some winter protection in itself.

When you plant mums in the spring, or when you are successful at overwintering them, this brings with it some extra duties to insure a great flower display in the fall. Mums need to have the growing tip pinched out periodically or they tend to become long, leggy, and fall over. Pinching encourages a compact bushy form, but according to several sources, pinching should only be done until mid-July since after this time the plant begins to form flower buds. I have noticed the mums in my garden forming flower buds as early as the end of June, so I stop pinching then, since I don't want to pinch out the flowers! The lengthening nights after the summer solstice in late June trigger flower bud formation.

Sometimes even when you follow every suggestion your mums still don't survive the winter. Some of the mums at my house have survived for about eleven years now. But now and again I lose a plant or two (or three…) due to especially cold winters, extended winter thaws followed by plummeting temperatures, or some unknown reason. Mother Nature reminds me regularly who really is in charge!


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