Monday, September 29, 2014

Autumn: Turn Over a New Leaf

Glorious Autumn! Keat's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is also (alas) the season of the rake. It seems that you spend the better part of your precious weekends just raking up leaves. And just when you have gotten them under control, along comes a brisk gust of wind, a sprinkling of rain, and your lawn is covered all over again. Groan! Time to drag out the rake once more.

Here is a solution to simplify your fall and improve the long-term health and vigor of your lawn, trees, and garden beds:

Mulch ado about leaves.
There are a large number of expensive, awkward, and sometimes useful products being hawked to suck up your leaves and turn them into mulch. There are blower-vacs which blow leaves into a pile which you can then suck up and shred. There are chipper-shredders with elephant trunks that also allow you to suck up and shred leaves, although you have to rake them into piles first. And lawn jockeys with disposable incomes can check out the over $1,200 self-propelled machines which act like gas-powered vacuum cleaners on your lawn (watch out for small pets).

Mower for less.
These contraptions may not be the solution for you. However, if you are like most homeowners, you may not have realized that your lawn mower is already a deluxe leaf mulcher in its own right. And perhaps the easiest way to deal with leaves is to mow them right back into the lawn itself. Forget back-breaking raking and bagging!

Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Deeper "drifts" might need to be partially raked first -- or plan to run back and forth over the leaves several times. And do not worry if your model is not a dedicated mulching mower, any type of mower will do.

Start your do-it-yourself "mulchinator" by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the discharge chute on a rear-discharge machine. Then run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to start on the outside perimeter of your lawn and start mowing inward. This will keep the leaf-bits on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Of course, some folks like to "blow" shredded leaves into ground cover areas, under foundation plantings, or into wooded areas, adding to the organic content of soils there, which is another option.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

Stay out of the gutter!
It is important not to blow whole or shredded leaves into streets, storm drains, or nearby streams. Those innocent-looking particles can create problems for sensitive aquatic life by suffocating plants, fish eggs, and insect larvae, clouding the water, tying up oxygen, and altering the stream's pH (increasing toxic acidity). And that is also why you should never rake leaves into the street or gutter: leaf leachate always ends up in your neighborhood stream.

Too many leaves?
The swirling mass of leaves may seem daunting at first, but the final particle size will be one-tenth of the original leaf. This will make it easily digestible by worms and bacteria. Skeptics often voice a concern that shredding leaves into turf areas will overwhelm and kill their lawn. Not at all! In fact, research at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania found that earthworms will actually drag a one-inch deep layer of organic matter into their burrows in just a few months, loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free.

Numerically, while you may imagine that all of those leaves will add up to far too much organic matter for your lawn, the fact is that 30 tall paper bags full of leaves, once shredded, will break down within a season to about one cubic yard of leaf mold or compost. Applied to your lawn as a topdressing, you would only be able to cover about 48 square feet (a six foot by eight foot patch). In fact, to topdress a lawn properly, most savvy gardeners have to import tons of commercial compost above and beyond the compost they make at home! Fear not: you will never have too many leaves or too much organic matter!

Your lawn needs leaves.
For decades, homeowners have bagged their grass clippings and leaves and sent them off to a landfill. And lawn chemical salespeople successfully and profitably sold the idea that healthy lawns needed bimonthly fertilizer and pesticide applications. Times have fortunately changed. The fact is that lawns and gardens can be maintained organically, for the most part, and without toxic inputs, just by recycling the natural materials already in place. When you bag up your clippings and leaves, you are short-circuiting the natural recycling process.

Think of the cycle this way: tree roots absorb water, minerals, and a host of nutrients from the soil. These materials are used to add girth to the tree trunk and boughs, set forth new branches, grow more roots, and grow leaves, flowers, and fruits or seeds. In a natural setting, such as a forest or woodlot, leaves, small twigs, blossoms, and fruits drop to the ground and slowly decompose, returning all of the original organic building blocks to the soil for future use.

What happens when you bag up leaves? How is that organic matter going to get back to the soil for the tree to use in coming years? You may think that by fertilizing your lawn you are returning everything the tree needs. Wrong! Of the more than one dozen major and minor nutrients that plants need to grow, how many are in your bag of fertilizer? And what about the organic matter that creates humus, the very soul of soil itself?

Bagging leaves and grass is equivalent to strip mining. The minerals, nutrients, and organic matter are continually stripped away year after year. Eventually, without those vital materials, your trees, your garden, and your lawn will start to suffer. It is time to undo this damage by getting that organic matter back into the soil. And you can easily start just by mowing your leaves into your lawn.

It's in the bagger!
There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to take the shredded material and start using it to mulch some of your trees and shrubs. This is also true for gardeners with some of the fancier shredding equipment. Apply up to four inches deep, and your mulch layer will also act as a blanket to prevent frost upheaval in planting beds, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials. You will also be feeding and protecting your plants and preventing weed growth for almost a full year.

A compost pile or bin is another excellent half-way point for shredded leaves. Those smaller leaf particles break down in less than half the time of whole leaves, and you can fit a prodigious quantity of shredded leaves into your bin. Also, if you find that you are cutting some grass while shredding leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials to ensure a hot, fast-working compost pile.

Recommended chores.
Mulching leaves into lawns is just the first step toward a naturally healthy lawn and environment. You should also consider aerating your lawn by either renting a core-aerating machine (about $70) or hiring a lawn care firm ($75 and up depending on overall lawn size). Aerating breathes life into compacted soils and helps organic matter filter deeper into subsoils and root zones. You should also test your soil with a kit from your county or municipality's local Cooperative Extension Service (costs are about ten dollars) to determine proper nutrient application rates. Your soil test will also indicate the type and quantity of lime your lawn needs; local soils are naturally acidic. And don't forget: fall is the only beneficial time to consider feeding your lawn -- only use a slow-release or organic nutrient source to feed the soil and your lawn's roots all winter long.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Primer on Autumn Lawn Care

Homeowners often make the mistake of thinking that the secret to a good lawn is lots of work in the spring. However, perhaps the most vital period of time for healthy turf is the fall, where proper feeding and care will result in a naturally lush and beautiful lawn in the spring, which will keep its green all year long.

Grasscycling for All Season Lawn Care

Healthy lawn care year-round starts and ends with grasscycling -- leaving those nutrient-rich clippings on the lawn when you mow. Do not be fooled by the old myth of bagging clippings when the weather turns nippy. Clippings can be left behind right up to the last mowing of the year. Worms will continue to pop out of their burrows and drag clippings deeper into the soil as long as soil is not frozen, and bacteria will continue to help break down the organic clippings even under a mantle of snow!

Grasscycling Means Leaf-cycling

As leaves fall onto lawn areas, your lawnmower can be used as a mobile chipper-shredder to run over the leaves and shred them into smaller particles. No raking or bagging required! You can continue to mulch leaves right into your soil all autumn long provided that the layer of fallen leaves does not exceed more than half and inch. It also helps if the leaves are primarily dry. Those colorful leaf “bits” provide much-needed organic matter for your soil. Soils that are organically well-fed are healthy soils which will easily grow healthy lawns.

Fall is Feeding Time

One of the major causes for turf disease and unhealthy lawns is overfeeding and fertilizing at the wrong time of year. Bad feeding practices and relying on synthetic “quick fix” fertilizers and lawn chemicals can have long term harmful impacts on your lawn and on the environment, especially groundwater and streams. To ensure a healthy lawn and environment, feed your lawn now and do it right.
  • Use your soil test results to determine proper application rates. If you haven’t tested your soil -- do it now! Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service office for a reliable five-ten dollar test kit.
  • Underfeed rather than overfeed; too much fertilizer leads to disease and thatch. Also, grasscyclers are already recycling a substantial amount of nutrients every time they mow.
  • Lawns should “eat” slowly. Avoid quick-release or water-soluble fertilizers. Generally, using a organic mix or low-analysis natural fertilizer (contents usually include bloodmeal, bonemeal, rock phosphate, and various manures), will provide plant roots will most of the nutrients they’ll require all year long. If synthetics are more readily available, make sure that the fertilizer is water-insoluble, or you’ll lose most of the nutrient benefit after the first rain.
  • Compost is a near complete meal -- and hefty dose of valuable organic matter -- for most lawns. You can use your own home-grown compost or purchase a commercial product, the most common being Milorganite, although many communities (and zoos!) often sell composted leaves and biosolids locally, in addition to various composted manure products. Compost can be spread over a lawn area as a topdressing about one-quarter inch thick.
  • Apply lime and other rock minerals, as indicated by your soil test. Normally, ground calcitic limestone is preferred over dolomitic lime, unless your soil suffers from a magnesium deficiency. Using ground rather than powdered lime will also ensure that the lime breaks down slowly during the winter and spring without washing off.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Aerating lawns is perhaps one of the most beneficial measures to ensure healthy soil and vigorous roots. Core aeration, which pulls plugs out of the soil, is the most effective method, and can be done by a lawncare contractor -- or by renting the equipment. The cost is usually the same either way. Aeration helps air reach organisms in the soil which break down organic matter and produce nutrients for the grass roots. It also allows organic matter, like leaf and grass particles or compost, to enter deeper into the plants’ root zones, improving soil and lawns all at once. The soil “plugs” also provide minerals for the soil surface.

Going to Seed

This is your last chance to get cool weather grass growing in bare patches. For trouble areas, it is best to roughen up the area with a rake, topdress with a thin layer of compost, and then apply the appropriate variety of grass seed and water evenly.

Remember that fall is the real beginning of the lawn care season. A little extra work now will allow you to enjoy those longer, warmer days of spring and summer a lot more next year.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, September 22, 2014

Making Good Scents With Indoor Plants

Tired of our artificially-scented and perfumed world, bubbling with pots of potpourri and plug-in air fresheners? A more natural choice to add aroma to our homes and offices can be found in an amazing assortment of plants which are as beautiful in bloom as they are richly laden with extraordinary fragrance.

The most popular fragrant plants for the gloomy days of winter are usually spring-flowering bulbs or corms, which are easily forced into bloom, sometimes within weeks of planting. Favorites include sweet-scented paperwhite narcissus, which can be grown in soil-less media like sphagnum moss, attractive pebbles, or even glass marbles. These and similar species can be stylishly arranged in exotic Asian cache pots, shiny copper trays, or homespun wooden baskets.

Paperwhites, despite their name, can also be purchased through catalogs offering single or double white petals framing a central cup of lemon yellow, gold, and orange, and providing varied intensities of aroma.

An undisputed champion of fragrance is freesia, another bulb, which blends the warm sweetness of paperwhites with a spicy citrus-like aroma. Freesia’s characteristic scent is so popular that it has unfortunately become one of the most overused fragrances in candles, sachets, bath soaps, lotions, and related personal care products. These synthetic versions are often cloyingly sweet and fail to capture the delicate nature of the flower itself. And while the traditional tubular flowers are a pale yellow, it is also possible to find plants with purple, pink, white, red, lavender, and orange blooms, as well as dwarf varieties, which can be grown without staking.

Hyacinths are undoubtedly one of the showiest and most pungent of indoor bulbs. While frequently associated with outdoor planting beds, mixed in with narcissus and tulips, hyacinths are readily grown in either containers or aptly named "hyacinth glasses" and can be found in shades ranging from deep to light blue, red, pink, gold, light yellow, and pure white. Typically, the largest mass of bloom is found in the exhibition Dutch hyacinths, which are more suited for forcing in a glass. French Roman varieties are best planted in a light soil medium and often produce several stalks of closely packed star-like flowers.

Incidentally, the notion of forcing bulbs in glass containers has become increasingly popular, perhaps even trendy, with paperwhites, where special “forcing vases” filled with some pebbles and water help focus more attention on the plant and its dainty blooms than on the container.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria maialis) is one of the most sweetly scented plants available. It is not actually grown from bulbs but from rhizomes called “pips,” which can be set either into a soil medium or grown in pebbles and water like paperwhites. Its familiar aroma is rather much the mainstay of the soap and toiletries industry, although there is a more pleasant association in older legends in which the gentle fragrance is said to attract nightingales. Like hyacinths, rooted Lily of the Valley pips can be readily transplanted to the outdoor garden in spring after their blooms have faded.

Beyond the world of bulbs and pips, there are a great many traditional and unusual plants which can add color and fragrance to tabletops and sunny windowsills. One of the most common is the gardenia, which dramatically balances it bright, creamy blossoms against dark, glossy foliage. There are some 200 species of gardenia, but the most readily found is the common gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides), which grows as an evergreen shrub in southern latitudes, although gardeners in our area must maintain it as a potted specimen. While in bloom, a single plant can send its sweet odor through an entire house. However, the plant is rather sensitive to changes in humidity, temperature, soil moisture, and light, and will readily – and annoyingly – drop its waxy buds and sulk for the remainder of the season.

Another inspired selection is jasmine, a tropical plant which can be grown outdoors during warmer weather, but must be overwintered indoors, where its rich fragrance will fill a room and delight family members and visitors alike. Although there are scores of plants called jasmine, only some of them are true jasmines, belonging to the genus Jasminum, many others are jasmines in name alone, and there are almost as many synonyms for the most popular species as there are species overall. Be sure to order the jasmine you want by botanical name, if purchasing a plant on-line or from a catalog. Otherwise, let your nose be your guide.

Among the most exquisite olfactory candidates are angelwing jasmine (Jasminum nitidum), normally a 20 foot tall shrub with strongly scented pinwheel-shaped blooms, easily kept under control in pots or planters through regular pruning. Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac) is one of the most frequently sold species, and is the plant used in Asia and the South Seas to flavor tea. With proper care, this variety will bloom time and time again, gracing both indoor and patio spaces. Note that there are numerous cultivars of Arabian jasmine which can provide either simple, five-petalled starlike and glistening blooms, like “Maid of Orleans” or large, showy two-inch blossoms resembling small white roses, such as “Grand Duke of Tuscany.”

Another outstanding selection is pink or winter jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), a twining subtropical vine with a soft fragrance, not as pungent as the Arabian or angelwing varieties, but noticeable and appealing. Flowers begin with pink-hued buds which open into small white flowers. The vining habit makes the plant a perfect choice for training on hoops or small trellises.

One of the most interesting non-jasmines is night jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), also commonly called “Night Queen” or “Queen of the Night” in India. This fast growing evergreen shrub is actually native to the West Indies, and is widely, if not wildly, popular in many tropical regions. Night jasmine produces countless masses of light greenish-white or greenish-yellow flowers several times a year, which open only at night. The intoxicating fragrance from even a small, five-foot container grown specimen can reach for many hundreds of yards. Some Cestrum aficionados actually bring their plant indoors during summer evenings to fill their home with an aroma which seems to last throughout the day.

Madagascar jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda) is another popular non-jasmine. This familiar tropical vine is also commonly referred to as "Bridal Veil Vine" or "Wedding Plant," as the clusters of sweetly aromatic blossoms are frequently used by florists in wedding arrangements and bouquets. At home, Stephanotis can be grown in a pot with a trellis or other support, or trained as a hanging basket with frequent pruning. Those cuttings, preferably four-inch tip sections, can be readily propagated by sticking them into a moist rooting medium.

Naturally, there are fragrant plants which do not even pretend to be jasmines. Two of the most spectacular are fragrant Bouvardia, a Mexican plant which grows well in containers and provides clusters of aromatic white flowers in tight racemes, much favored in cut floral arrangements. Another is ylang ylang (Cananga odorata), an Indonesian native with greenish-yellow petals appearing in large clusters. The name means “flower of flowers,” and those allegedly seductive flowers are credited with everything from inducing hypnotic and euphoric states, to being a potent aphrodisiac. Most commonly this plant is known for the essential oil derived from the blossoms.

Finally, not all fragrant plants have to actively broadcast their scent. For example, scented geraniums (Pelargonium species) are easily grown indoors on windowsills and offer an unmatched array of botanical and culinary aromas and flavors, from rose and lime, to pineapple, ginger and nutmeg. The fragrance is easily released by lightly brushing against the foliage. Leaves can be used to flavor jellies, sugars, potpourris, and sachets.

Rosemary is one of the few culinary herbs which happily grows indoors. Just rubbing against the stiff needles releases an amazing aroma. The plant can be trimmed and grown as a miniature Christmas tree, or trained into other fanciful topiary shapes. You can also let the plant grow haphazardly on a sunny kitchen windowsill, where ends can be snipped-off for use in freshly baked foccacia.

In the end, why bother with spray can room deodorizers and pint-sized potpourri crock pots when you can fill your living space with real fragrances, brilliant blooms, and the quiet joy that living plants can bring?

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Fall -- And the Garden Year Begins

The days are growing shorter and colder, and your mailbox is already full of winter catalogs. You might think your garden chores are finished for the season. Think again. The garden year actually begins with the misty, mellow days of autumn.

Spring only seems like the perfect time to resume work on your landscape. After all, garden centers are overflowing seductively with flowering plants, community groups plan Arbor Day celebrations and all around, you can hear lawnmowers chomping on fast-growing grass.

However, planting trees and shrubs in the spring gives the plants very little time to overcome transplant shock and develop essential root systems before summer's scorching heat and dry conditions.

Fall is the ideal and appropriate time to plant and transplant trees, shrubs and many perennials. In fact, it is important to get both broad-leaved and needle-leaved evergreens in the ground no later than mid-autumn. Species like holly, spruce, juniper, pine, fir and hemlock do not enter a dormant phase. Instead, they continue to transpire actively through their leaves during winter, which requires fully functioning root systems capable of taking water from the soil.

Planting as soon as possible allows roots to reestablish vital root hairs or fibers, which will begin supplying water. This is especially important for any plant with a root system that may have been damaged while being dug up for transplanting. Moreover, fall planting gives transplants two full growing seasons to become settled in before the dog days of summer. Water thoroughly after planting – and keep watering every week, if dry conditions ensue.

Planting and transplanting deciduous trees and shrubs — like maples, dogwoods, lilacs, hydrangea and viburnum — is best done after their leaves have fallen, signaling dormancy. Without the burden of supplying water and nutrients to leaves and branches, the tree can focus on growing new roots and preparing for blooming and leafing out in spring.

Fall is also the season for planting almost all hardy spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips, scilla, crocuses, hyacinths and narcissus, which includes daffodils and jonquils. Some gardeners prefer digging individual holes for each bulb, especially with more formal species like tulips. Prepare a hole two-and-one-half times deeper than the bulb’s diameter. Before setting the bulb in place, toss in a handful of bonemeal or a dose of a “complete fertilizer,” then fill in the hole.

A better approach for other bulbs might be to treat them like perennials. Prepare a well-drained planting area or bed by removing any weeds and debris and topping the area with four to six inches of compost. Incorporate the compost into the existing soil with a shovel, spade or rototiller, working the amendment down into the top 10 or 12 inches of existing earth. Then insert the bulbs into the fluffy, organically-rich planting medium, preferably in groups or clumps — far more attractive than formal rows Many gardeners use this type of preparation to “naturalize” bulbs like crocus and daffodils, thereby creating a flow of bright, nodding blooms between trees on a lawn, or down a hillside. Such plantings, also called “drifts,” are often seen along parkways and in natural garden areas.

Rescue, renovate or rethink your lawn during the fall as well. If you have not worked on it in autumn, anything you do in spring will be too little and too late. Start by investing in a simple $5-10 soil test through your local cooperative extension service office. The test will provide complete and sound directions for applying lime and fertilizer. Remember that autumn is the best and sometimes the only time to feed most turfgrasses.

Like trees and shrubs, grass plants continue to develop roots throughout winter. Feeding the roots and aiding their development now will ensure a healthier, more drought-tolerant lawn come spring and summer.

Lawns could also do with a breath of fresh air about now. Consider contracting with a landscaper to core aerate the lawn, or rent an aerator and do it yourself. The process, which normally costs less than $100 regardless of who does the work, will remove plugs from the soil and allow air to infiltrate deeper into the ground and stimulate grass roots. The small holes will improve drainage and help nutrients and organic matter — such as grass clippings and leaves — work their way into the soil horizon.

You also can add valuable organic matter to your lawn by mulching or grinding up leaves with a mower. Otherwise, rake up fallen leaves and other debris and add them to the compost pile to prevent the spread of fungal diseases during the wet winter months.

If your lawn has been a disappointment, cut it down to size. Autumn is the perfect time to create new planting beds. Either remove sod with a shovel or leave it in place and smother it with cardboard and newspaper. Apply six, eight or more inches of mulch over the top of the bed and walk away. Worms and microorganisms will gobble up grass, roots and mulch while you sip hot cocoa indoors, leaving you with a brand-new planting area to play with in spring. Instead of complaining about your lawn, spend winter thumbing through colorful garden and seed catalogs.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, September 19, 2014

"Mums" the Word

Shorter days -- cooler nights.  Perhaps you've noticed.  Fall is fast upon us!  Not surprisingly, a recent visit to my neighborhood Whole Foods market was greeted by an exuberantly colorful sight. Mums. Mountains and mounds of them. And how timely. After all, as the sun slips lower in the sky, we'll find a new kind of light. An "autumn light" which is mellow, warm and golden, and almost seems to glow across our landscape. Gardeners, looking to respond to that gentle light, will find no plant which can echo the gentle colors of fall more kindly and completely than the chrysanthemum.

The chrysanthemum is often called the “queen of fall flowers,” and is actually the largest commercially produced flower in the United States, both as a potted plant, and in floral arrangements, where chrysanthemums are valued as one of the longest lasting cut flowers.
Mums are members of the Asteraceae (or Compositae) family, the largest family of flowering plants, and is related to asters, dahlias, marigolds, zinnias, and most other daisy-like flowers. A closer look at a plant will reveal that the single bloom is actually made up or “composed” (hence Compositae) of hundreds of small flowers or florets, with ray florets on the outer edge of the flower, and disk florets at the center of the blossom.

The origins of the mum take us to China at least as far back as the 15th Century B.C., where the plant was cultivated as a flowering herb for use in salads, brewing beverages for special celebrations, and curing headaches, possibly caused by those celebrations.

Please note that only the flower petals of today’s ornamental mums are edible. While there is an edible chrysanthemum called garland or vegetable chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium), with leaves reminiscent of today’s ornamental variety, hungry gardeners should not attempt to eat the foliage of garden chrysanthemums.

During the eighth century A.D., chrysanthemums began to appear in the literature and art of Japan. Called Ki-Ku, “Queen of the East,” a single blossom of the flower was used as the crest of the emperor, and Chrysanthemum Throne is the common name for the Imperial Throne. Today, chrysanthemum is the national flower of Japan.

Chrysanthemums gained attention in the West in the 17th century, and were so-named by the botanist Linnaeus who combined the Greek “chrysos” with “anthemon” to describe a “golden flower.”

Of course, mums are a lot more than golden flowers these days. Horticultural breeding now provides a dizzying variety of forms, colors, and growth habitats. The National Chrysanthemum Society recognizes 13 different classes of mum, many of which are familiar to gardeners, such as spider, anemone, quill, spoon, and pompon, although marketing efforts also tout mums with fanciful names such as football mums, maxi-mums, pin cushion, and many more.

Beyond interesting floral shapes, these jewels of autumn are resplendent in russets and gold, red, yellow, gold, orange, pink, purple and white, and can be planted in solid masses of color, or mixed together like a living tapestry.

Of special interest is a fairly recent and popular mum, ‘Silver and Gold,’ which provides variegated foliage along with attractive blooms and desirable winter hardiness.
Chrysanthemums can be sited almost anywhere in the landscape, in planters by a front door, as border plantings along a driveway, or mixed into a year-round garden bed to provide a quiet splash of color.

Planted in beds around and beneath trees, the colors you select can mirror or complement the seasonal color of the leaves overhead. Above all, the mums can provide a dramatic climax for your landscape before the arrival of winter.

However, before you run off to your local supermarket to pick up your bounty of mums, you should consider a few important details. Most important of all, be sure to select hardy garden mums, not the foil-wrapped, potted florist mums. The mums commonly given as housewarming gifts are probably not winter hardy, and also tend to become quite tall, and will provide few blooms beyond the care and feeding of a greenhouse manager.

Instead, turn to a reputable garden center, where the mums are already somewhat acclimated to cooler temperatures, and where the plants were initially bred for use as perennials. Seek advice from a staff horticulturist if you are uncertain about your selection.

You will want to ensure that your mums will receive about six hours of sun, and should be planted in organically-rich, well-drained soil. Consider improving your soil by adding compost and prepare the planting bed eight to 12 inches deep.

After planting, water the mums thoroughly and water weekly thereafter, carefully avoiding wetting the foliage which can cause mildew. After the flowers have faded, snip off spent blooms and mulch the bed with shredded leaves or shredded hardwood mulch about three inches thick.

Keep in mind that there may be some losses if the winter months are especially harsh. Generally, spring-planted mums have a better survival rate than those planted in fall, but proper care can make a significant difference.

In early spring, pull back the mulch to allow new shoots to emerge and prune back old stems to the ground. After plants start growing fully, pinch back about four inches of growth every three to four weeks until July to encourage bushy growth, a full head of flowers, and an autumnal blooming period.

Every other spring, starting in about two years, divide your mums by digging up the entire plant, then use a sharp knife to separate well-rooted outer pieces from the original plant. Space out and replant the new pieces, and send the old woody core to the compost pile.

Interestingly, you will find that chrysanthemums seldom receive the recognition they deserve. For example, Preakness fans think they are seeing the winning horse and rider presented with a blanket of Black-eyed Susans. Not so! Those flowers are actually mums, substituted for the summer-blooming Maryland state flower.

A rose by any other name? You will also find that there are few roses adorning those colorful floats in the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena. Instead, delighted viewers are enjoying a kaleidoscope of mum blossoms and petals. But mums the word on that!

For more information on growing and appreciating mums, turn to the National Chrysanthemum Society and their website: www.mums.org.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser