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Mums are fall’s favorite flower—here’s how to care for them

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Yellow-orange chrysanthemums with a pumpkin in the background. Credit: Getty Images / AlpamayoPhoto

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Mums are a colorful staple of the fall garden, but how do you care for mums? It doesn’t matter whether you call them mums, garden mums, chrysanthemums, or Chrysanthemum morifolium—these types of perennial flowers are all the same, and they can brighten your garden for months or even years with a little TLC.

Here’s how to care for mums.

What are mums?

Split image of purple chrysanthemums from Lowe's and orange chrysanthemums from The Home Depot.
Credit: Lowe's / Home Depot / Reviewed

Mums' resilience in cold weather makes them popular in the fall.

Mums are those bushy flowers with dozens of petals that pop up everywhere in the fall because they generally bloom until there’s a 32F frost. Mums come in shades of yellow, orange, red, white, and purple, and occasionally coral, lavender, or pink. They sometimes have a contrasting center button like a daisy.

There are two general types of chrysanthemums out there:

  • Florist mums: These are really cut flowers in a pot. They’ve been bred for color, not cold hardiness. They’ll make your porch or patio pretty through the fall, but they won’t survive the winter. These are the mums you’ll find at supermarkets, farm stands, and florists.

  • Garden mums: Bred to survive winters. You can find garden mums at places like the garden centers at Home Depot or Lowe's or through online retailers like Burpee.

Look for mums with plenty of flower buds. They’re not going to grow new flower buds before frost.

How to care for mums in pots

A gardener with teal gloves tends to potted chrysanthemums.
Credit: Getty Images / iStock / ArtmannWitte

Full sun, evenly moist soil, and avoiding frost are key to caring for potted mums.

All types of mums need the same care as long as they’re planted in containers. Put the container in full sun if possible for the healthiest possible mums. They’ll be fine if they just get morning or afternoon sun, but full sun is better.

Also, make sure to keep the soil evenly moist. Dry soil makes chrysanthemum flowers fade fast, and small pots full of roots dry out quickly. Check your mums containers for moisture frequently.

If you see frost in the weather forecast, bring your mums indoors! Even if the mums survive, frost can destroy the flower buds that haven’t bloomed.

Deadhead (cut off) the spent blooms to make your mums look fresh and encourage continued flowering.

How to care for mums through the winter

A split image of potted pink mums from Lowe's and a closeup of coral mums from Burpee.
Credit: Lowe's / Burpee / Reviewed

It's possible for mums to survive the colder seasons by bringing them inside.

Although some experts recommend tossing mums on the compost heap after frost, you can keep your mums alive until the next growing season.

If you have the space, the easiest way to care for mums over winter is to bring them inside in their containers.

When bringing mums indoors, place the flower in a cool, sunny place. Be sure to remove any coverings on the container (such as decorative foil wraps) that might trap water.

Additionally, cut back on your watering. Let the mums get a little dry on top, about two to three inches, before watering them thoroughly.

In the spring, your mums will need to readjust to living outdoors, similar to hardening off seedlings. When spring temperatures are consistently over 45°F, put them outside in a shady place for a few hours a day, then gradually increase the amount of time they spend in the sun.

And finally, don’t leave them outside overnight if there’s a chance of frost.

How to care for mums planted outdoors

A split image of pine bark mulch and seeding straw from Lowe's.
Credit: Lowe's / Reviewed

Shredded bark and straw make good mulch to insulate roots and keep the plants in place.

Getting mums to stay alive over the winter in the ground is tricky, and some “hardy” garden mums won’t survive in northern areas anyway.

Mums’ shallow roots are very vulnerable to winter damage, and cycles of freezes and thaws can heave the mums right up out of the soil. Here’s how to increase the odds that your mums will resprout next spring.

Make sure to plant your mums as soon as possible. One of the biggest challenges to planting mums in the fall is that they simply don’t have enough time to spread their roots into your garden soil before frost, increasing the likelihood of root damage during freeze/thaw cycles and dry periods.

When it comes to planting, space the mums the same depth they were in the containers, in a site that gets full sun and drains well after a rain—about 18 inches to 24 inches apart. Water them thoroughly after planting.

Once frost has killed the flowers and most of the leaves, and the stems have turned brown, cover the mums with four inches of mulch to help insulate the roots and keep the plant from heaving out of the ground. You can use any fine mulch such as pine needles, shredded bark, or straw. Just be sure not to use leaves, as they’ll get matted down and won’t provide any insulation.

In spring, remove the mulch once the ground thaws, which is usually early April in northern areas of the U.S. Side-dress with compost or apply a balanced fertilizer according to the manufacturer’s directions. Stop fertilizing once flower buds form.

As your mums grow, pinch off the tips of shoots to get more compact plants with more flowers. (If you don’t pinch off the tips, your mums will get tall, skinny, and “leggy” and will tend to flop over.) Start when the plants are three feet to four feet tall, and remove the growing tips and two feet to three feet of growth. Keep pinching off the ends once a month until the flower buds develop, then stop. Don’t pinch off the flower buds!

And if your winter mums perish despite all your tender care, consider planting mums in the spring, when they’ll have plenty of time to establish their roots before frost. Or plant some other fall-blooming perennials that look dynamite until frost.

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