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Americans love their mothers and their mums. "Mums" is short for chrysanthemum flowers and easier to spell as well. Chrysanthemum in Greek means golden flower. Some species have been cultivated in China for more than 2,000 years. The Japanese adopted the mum and have devoted centuries to its culture and improvement. It has been the national flower of Japan for several hundred years. Mums were introduced to the United States in 1798 and remain the most widely grown potted plant in the country. Americans associate chrysanthemums with housewarming presents, get-well wishes and cheery times. In Belgium and Austria, mums are mainly used to decorate gravesites.

Selecting a mum

Garden centers, supermarkets, even hardware stores are stocked full of beautiful hardy chrysanthemums at this time of year. The mum business is much like the fashion industry. Plant breeders introduce new colors and styles each year so people will buy more plants. Some mums can be mistaken for daisies, fluffy zinnias or intricate dahlias. Colors include many shades of yellow, orange, red, purple, bronze, pink and white. Sorry, true blue has yet to be found. Just pick colors and flower forms you like, and get growing.

One of the secrets to a long display of color is to purchase mums barely opening their buds. They can be displayed on the patio in pots or planted directly in a prepared site. Check the plant label or ask the garden manager if it is a hardy mum that can be planted in the garden and enjoyed for years to come.

Growing hardy mums

Mums are called short-day plants because they begin to develop buds when days are less than 12 hours long. Plants thrive on cool 60 F temperatures, which are best for proper formation of buds. Asters and poinsettias are other popular plants that fall into this category. Flower growers can darken their greenhouses with covers. This tricks plants into flowering just in time for Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Mums planted outdoors in the fall do not need fertilizer until they begin to grow the following spring. Just provide well-drained, amended soil and plenty of sunshine.

Mums prefer moist, well-drained garden soil in a sunny spot. Add organic matter, such as compost, at planting time. The best time to plant mums is spring, but they also can be planted in fall. The earlier they are planted, the longer the mums will have to develop good root systems before winter. Midseason and late-flowering mums are best to plant in the South. Where freezes come early, plant early-blooming mums.

A pinch to grow an inch

When chrysanthemums have finished blooming in the fall, they should be covered with 2 or 3 inches of straw or other light material. Do not remove tops at this time. The dead top can be cut back to ground level in spring when the straw is removed.

To maximize bud formation for fall, pinch the plants starting in June. To pinch, simply remove about an inch off the tip of each stem. Do this around mid-May when plants are about 6 inches tall. Pinch again around July 4. After the July pinch, let the foliage take its course. Pinching stimulates branching, which means more buds will form. The result will be bushy, well-shaped, flowering plants.

Chrysanthemums do better if divided each spring. You will discover that many smaller plants, each possessing its own roots, surround the original plant. Gently separate them, and use the new outside ones to replant. Discard the woody center section.

A Chinese philosopher once said, "If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow chrysanthemums." So remember mum's the word in fall flowers. For more information, visit the National Chrysanthemum Society's website at www.mums.org.

Contact Tom Stebbins at tstebbins@utk.edu or 423-855-6113.

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