Fall out


Mum image courtesy of Shutterstock
Mum image courtesy of Shutterstock

It’s not that I really hate mums. I do dislike the common ones sold in the big boxes—the stiff form, the premature browning, and the fact that there’s more of a stench than a fragrance. But it’s not just the flowers themselves—it’s what they represent. At their worst, mums symbolize everything I hate about conventional fall gardening wisdom.

First, there’s the “clean-up.” I wonder if it’s only in American that we’re so obsessed with always cleaning up our gardens. Leaves have to be swept up, sucked up, or blown away almost as soon as they fall. Perennials are chopped to the ground. And perfectly good containers of summer-blooming annuals are replaced with mums or ill-conceived arrangements of soggy cornstalks and rancid hay.

Even if I wanted to plant such late season annuals as there are, my containers are needed for more important purposes. By early November, all of them are fully planted with tulip bulbs and stashed in the garage, where they’ll stay until late March/early April.

As for clean-up, my idea of clean-up is to cut down and compost only that which is thoroughly dead, inarguably hideous, and seems unlikely to dissolve into the ground under its own power (like phlox, for example).  Otherwise, I find that whatever I leave will be a lot smaller and easier to get rid of in spring.

With the first killing frost fast approaching, the containers I planted in May still have plenty of color and life left in them. Rather than replace their contents with mums, I’d rather focus on bulbs and enjoy mums as they should be enjoyed—at the botanical garden’s annual show. Fall is a beautiful season here—too beautiful to waste cleaning up.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Wow, your petunias look like that NOW? Mine were completely spent weeks ago and I ripped them out just before the garden tour came here. Replaced them with mums! After the mums I’ll be buying ornamental kale – love the purple ones. But here in Zone 7B, with almost no snow cover, why not have color all winter long?
    And btw, I tried Persian Shield this year in the ground and it did nothing, despite regular watering. Do you feel yours regularly?

  2. I take it this is Susan! Those are not petunias, though the homegrown seedling petunias I planted are also still doing well.

    Those are calibrachoas, which do tend to have more staying power than petunias. I’ve never taken special pains with Persian Shield–but I usually have it in a container. If you did feed it it would have to be hi-nitrogen, I suppose. But I never have.

  3. Mums signify death here in France. They show up in pots in the stores just before All Saints Day so you can put them on your family plots in the cemetery, but that’s it. I cant recall ever having seen them in someone’s yard, it’s a bit taboo. Maybe you’re just secretly French?

  4. Clean up is whenever I get around to. Some in fall. Some on nice days in winter. Hostas get cleaned up after first frost slimed them and easy to do. I like to whack it all down so I can spray the ammonia slug killer and spread compost. Mums, eh, I usually plop one or two in tug ground. They come back for a few years.

  5. Well, around here bulbs don’t do very well, even in pots. Probably too warm. And we don’t get snow to cover up the dead plants. Mums, however, add a good deal of color to a landscape that is quickly becoming faded green & brown. And they usually last through most of winter since frost doesn’t always find us here. Heck, I even like their smell.

    I don’t have to have my yard spotless by any means. But the days are fast approaching when, thanks to the job, the commute, & the kids, I won’t see daylight on my own yard except for weekends & holidays. And there’s just not enough time then to get the chores done, so I’d best start now.

    • Yes, it really does vary by zone, doesn’t it. I find that my stuff gets pretty annihilated by winter, so I really don’t need to clean up much at all.

  6. Mums, huh? I never plant them. To me they’re the ubiquitous porch decoration for fall, and when they fade they’re history. That said, autumn wouldn’t be the same without them! Love your calis, they’re my go-to favorite for mixed containers.

  7. I’ve never been a fan of mums at home although I do admire them massed outside office buildings.

    Here in zone 6B, I’ve been successful planting ornamental kale at the top of my potted tulips, which I leave outside near the house. I enjoy the ornamental kale all winter and in Spring the tulips come right up through it.

  8. In the uk they call it ‘putting the garden to bed’, which makes me cringe. I too find it best to jump up and down on brittle dried plants in the spring, and meanwhile mostly watch their sometimes colourful dying. Some better than others – but who would cut ornamental grasses down?

    If I do cut down in autumn I let it lie where it fell and there’s an end to thinking about compost or feeding: plants make their own mulch.

    The obsession with tidiness in gardens is not more heartwarming than such an obsession indoors. But I do think that things are beginning to loosen up here at long last.

  9. I like my mums in my beds – I always forget to pinch them back, so they end up sprawling all over the place, which I feel suits the general messiness of autumn. As to fall cleanup, I do it for two big reasons. One, it just makes sense in terms of eliminating or curbing disease and/or pests by denying them a place to shelter over the winter. Two, I’m just too bloody busy in spring to have time to clear up such a mess. Just my way of doing things!

    • I’m with you – I have a lot of fruit trees and leaving their fallen leaves & branches would perpetuate any disease or pest I’d been fighting all through the growing season. Add to that the mice & rats, possums, raccoons, & skunks … well, I don’t want to give them shelter in any way, so I clear what I can, cut back what needs to be cut back. As much as possible goes into the compost pile. But if I leave it to compost in place, it won’t happen in a single season. We don’t get enough rain to allow for that. Anything I want composted relatively quickly must go in the pile.

  10. A gardening guru friend told me many years ago that the leaves and debris in our gardens not only protect the plants and hold in moisture here in Colorado (and, of course, break down for food for the soil) but that they provide cover for insects – which are still being sought as nutrition by our birds. Leave it if you can – it’s a healthy blanket!

  11. Since fall’s a great time for planting trees and shrubs (I live near Elizabeth in western NY, by the way), my big ambition this year is to forgo the mums and get that Diablo ninebark I’ve been wanting (it has dark foliage that takes on reds and oranges in fall). They still have trees and shrubs available at the garden centers, and Diablo will offer season-long interest all next season and into fall (also through the winter, even, since it has exfoliating bark).

  12. I forgot to mention that you can get great deals on trees and shrubs at the garden centers this time of year, because they’re trying to clear out the inventory. Then again, I’m sure you already knew that.

  13. I also don’t do much cleaning up in the garden unless there has been frost damage. and its unsightly since I have many plants in my front yard. I usually leave the material and clean up in late winter.

    One thing I do, however, is to continue to fertilize and deadhead the pollinator-attracting annuals like zinnia and tithonia, so the wildlife have some nourishment. This way, there’s no need for mums and pansies.

    If interested, here’s a short video from my front yard:

  14. I have learned to cut down some of my plants like the ornamental grasses in December as once they get any amount of snow cover they are excellent homes all winter for voles. I will compost the hosta leaves to help deter slugs, cut down asparagus as I have a problem with the asparagus beetles. I am usually tired of gardening and do not do much more than that.

  15. Those mums you see for sale everywhere attract pretty much zero wildlife — waste of space. And who the monkey nuts wants to go work outside more in fall after a long season? Leave the perennials up and help out the birds, butterflies, frogs, and anything else overwintering out there. Plus, winter interest is like WAY hip right now, or should be. Nothing would make me more insane for 5 months that looking outside to a moonscape. Instead, my garden is flush with wildlife, interesting structure, color and sound, and when it snows I swear I’m in heaven.

  16. I’m not a fan of potted mums either, though we usually wind up with at least 2 or 3 every fall because my mother-in-law (who lives with us) loves them. But I am enjoying some of the perennial mums. Dendranthema ‘Clara Curtis’ has small pink flowers starting in early Sept here in the Catskills (z4/5); the blooms last for about a month and the plant has attractive grayish green foliage. The flowers of Chrysanthemum ‘Mary Stoker’ open about 3 weeks later and are a lovely pinkish straw-yellow. This year I also have C. ‘Hillside Pink Sheffield’, which is just now starting to bloom, so it may not be very useful here. We’ve already had a couple of hard frosts.

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