When I was growing up in College Station, all of the gardening magazines and most of the catalogs came out of the North.
I fell asleep as a teenager poring over their pages as I figured out how to include those beautiful plants in our family’s gardens. Some of the plants did well for me (daylilies and iris as examples), and some of them did not.
I worked a week mowing yards to accumulate enough money to buy a collection of true lilies. In spite of the claims, only one of the seven bloomed one lonely flower, and the rest withered away into the Texas summer heat. I learned a tough lesson about “truth in advertising.”
I also saw plants called “cushion” mums, so named because they grew like tufted pincushions. I ordered and grew them, and they did very well for me. They didn’t look exactly like the photographs in the catalogs, but that was before I found out that those photos, like Hollywood stars, have had lots of help.
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Jump ahead with me by about five years. I’d transferred from Texas A&M University to Ohio State. I went from a school with four of us majoring in floriculture (greenhouse production) to one with 240 undergraduate and 43 graduate students. I was in a heartland of American horticulture, going to school with children of the people whose catalogs I’d been reading.
One of our first field trips that fall was to a place called Yoder Brothers in Barberton (outside Akron). It was the nation’s largest producer of chrysanthemum cuttings, turning out millions and millions per month. One of its greenhouses was, I believe, 600 feet long and 60 or 80 feet wide. I just know that when I stood dead center in the middle of it, the ends drifted down almost to the horizon.
Yoder Brothers grew and sold cuttings of all kinds of florist mums. Football mums. Pompom mums for use in floral design. Pot mums for sale in bloom in flower shops. And even garden (“cushion”) mums. What an incredible place. And three years later, I ended up teaching high school horticulture for two years with the son of Yoder’s shipping manager. I was living a dream.
This is the point in my story today where I probably need to bring us back to a few facts about chrysanthemums. Let’s define some terms you may see or hear.
• Photoperiodic. This refers to plants that measure the length of the dark period (i.e., the night) to determine when the proper time to produce flowers has arrived. They have a flower-inducing hormone in their growing tips, and that hormone is destroyed by light. When enough of the hormone accumulates, flower bud production is “initiated.”
• Short-day plants. Mums, like poinsettias and Christmas cacti, are “short day” plants (meaning actually, “long night.”) They bloom only when nights reach a certain length, which is why they only bloom in the fall unless a greenhouse grower intervenes by pulling black shade fabric over them at 5 p.m. and pulling it off at 8 the next morning. That lets the plants “think” that it’s fall, even though it may be the middle of the summer.
• “Pinching.” Most gardeners know this term from a horticultural standpoint. To get plants to produce side shoots and, therefore, to stay more compact, they will pinch out the growing tips every few weeks to force their plants to branch. Of course, you only do that a few times. When you’re ready for flowers, you must stop pinching and allow the plants a couple of months to produce buds and blooms.
• “Disbudding.” If you want fewer flowers of much larger size, you’ll remove side buds as soon as they form. Allow only the terminal bud to grow. All of the plant’s efforts, then, will be directed at producing one large flower head per stalk.
Growing mums in North Texas
Chrysanthemums are completely winter-hardy to North Texas cold.
Garden mums will bloom for three or four weeks, then the flowers will gradually begin to fade to light brown, chaffy remains. At that point, if you look down near the soil line, you’ll see new shoots beginning to form. Those will become the plants’ main stalks next year.
This year’s stems will die away over the winter. To avoid that ugliness, however, you can clip the stems back near the ground as soon as the plants have finished flowering.
The new shoots will begin active growth in early spring. If you intend to pinch taller types of mums to force side branches to form, do it when the stems are 4 to 6 inches tall. If you intend to dig and divide your plants, do so before that vigorous new growth begins. Late February is probably the best time to divide them.
Garden mums usually bloom in the spring as well as the fall. Night lengths, after all, are the same then as they are in the fall. Enjoy those flowers for a few weeks, then trim them off by late May or early June, so the plants will have ample time to produce new growth, then set buds for their fall blooms.