The death knell of summer



There are two images that signal to me that my joy in my garden is numbered by the ever-shortening days and hours. One of them comes with sounds as well as an image— the sounds of cheering, cursing, grunts, thuds, and beer commercial theme songs.

I can’t do anything about the football season, nor do I wish to. It’s part of life and I understand that it’s something that really interests a lot of people, some of whom I care about or respect for other reasons.

However, must we have mums? Must we? Through an arrangement with a local TV station, my magazine does a “lifestyle” segment once a week, and I often (to make it easy on myself) choose to focus on gardening. While discussing the topic with our host last week, she said, “Oh gardening—you’ll want to talk about getting started on your mums!”

“Hell no!,” was my reply (more or less). Aside from a visceral hatred of these plants that has been simmering for years, I honestly don’t know what there is to say about them. Despite lies to the contrary, they are not perennial in my zone, no matter how much mulch you pile on top of them. As for the annual use of the plants, unlike even the most anemic petunia, they just kind of sit there. Nothing grows, just dies, gradually, as the blooms on each plant go brown in their turn. A big mound of smelly, unsatisfactory flowers that have to be constantly pinched. Ok, then, florist’s mums. Gorgeous blooms, especially the spider variety, but the stiff, tall stems are all you end up looking at.

I know there’s something here, but I’ve yet to discover how to make the most of it. I actually like the look of the foliage on the garden mums, and the flower form is not unlike that of two plants I really love: dahlias and zinnias. Yet, they fall so very far short of these beautiful, useful plants. Mum defenders, come forth! Convince me! Why should I even begin to like them? I just don’t get it. I’d rather go out into the fields and gather wild goldenrod, pokeweed, and dried-on-the-stalk Russian sage than bring a mum into the house.

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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 regular 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


  1. Great graphic! And here’s where I would have gone on the subject of football sounds – to me it’s toxic noise pollution. It’s right up there with certain genres of music.

  2. I love mums! I’m sad that mine are blooming too early this year. In the fall the pretty mounds of flowers last long after everything else withers or turns brown. At the end of Oct. last year they were the only color left in the garden. The foliage is a pretty anchor at the front of the border all summer long. Not perennial? Mine are doing just fine. I don’t see them as a flower to bring inside but they cheer me up when I know the snow isn’t far off. I wish I had planted more last year.

  3. THANK YOU ELISABETH! I thought I was the only gardener in the Northern Hemisphere that does not like mums. I feel so much better now!

    I live in Southern California – Zone 10 and mums here do a big “Tah-Dah” and then die a slow horrible death. What is the point? Are there mum-growing secrets I am not aware of? Anyone?

  4. I, too, dislike mums for their static quality. What’s the point of planting something that doesn’t grow?

    For fall blooms, I prefer sweet autumn clematis, eupatorium rugosum, and Japanese anemones. I’d like to try colchium, too–but so far, have just been too cheap to spring for the fairly expensive bulbs.

  5. You know, I almost think it’s the way they are marketed–the quintessential gift plant. They’re shoved in our faces so much, it’s hard to discover them for yourself, as we do with many other plants.

    (See, already, I’m feeling bad about saying I hated a flower. Not bad enough to buy mums though.)

    Oh man, colchicums. Not only expensive but FUSSY. You would do well, Michele, with your sandy soil. They hate my wet, heavy soil.

  6. Interesting timing, because the public garden where I volunteer (McCrillis Gardens in Bethesda, Md.for those of you D.C. locals ; can’t miss it) decided this year NOT to put in the usual 600 or so mums in its grand circle – which just get pulled out in several weeks and replaced by pansies. Instead, we cut back the existing gorgeous red coleus, combined with cuphea and phormiums, and will enjoy them till pansy time. It’s more “green”, saves volunteers’ backs, and is just as attractive!

    But ps, I like to look at mums – in OTHER people’s gardens.

  7. I don’t plant mums because they don’t perform well for me, but I usually buy a big pot of yellow or orange mums to put in a container on the porch, along with some pumpkins. They just say fall to me, and after an Austin summer I adore anything that hints of fall. Well, maybe not football.

  8. Try Sheffield Pink or some of the older Korean named varieties. They are much hardier, but the stems are lax, so much the better to weave among those Japanese anemones.

  9. Actually I thought the picture was of pot marigolds, that is until I read the text. Pretty I thought but what has that to do with American football… so read on.
    I like the older kinds of chrysanthemums like Sheffield Pink too(although that one seems to bloom a bit late up here in zone 5b), they go with Michaelmas daisies and golden rod and blackberries. The older ones have smaller flowers and here they bloom for a good long period. At the moment I have some dark red ones blooming next to the last of the dark red day lilies, below a PeeGee hydranga just coming into full bloom. I don’t really find chrysanthemums “stiffer” than many other plants and surely one of the things about gardening is to mix stiffs and floppies in interesting combinations.

  10. Not perennial in your zone? Huh? I live in your neck of the woods and I have Mums popping up every spring in my garden, with no mulch to speak of. They were inherited from a former owner and I suspect she grew it from seed. I tried to overwinter a store bought yellow garden mum I bought last year and it died on me. I suspect it’s because they sell the mums so late in the season that they don’t really get a chance to get established before the frost hits. Mums are a lot more fun to raise when you can see them grow.

  11. I would so much rather look at coleus, but I must admit, you’ve got me intrigued with this Sheffield pink.

    I’ve never seen lax stems on a mum.

  12. I hate mums. And even though it’s 104 today, and we are in a 16 inch rain defecit drought, and some cooler weather does sound nice….I STILL hate mums, because they mean fall, and after that comes winter. Dead, grey, dark early, no flowers, WINTER. Actually, the ONLY thing that consols me is the beginning of football season (I admit it,and I’m a girl).

  13. Oh yeah… there are some old fashioned single pink mums that I got from an elderly lady’s home place…I do like them as an exception.

  14. Mums were the THING around 1900. Lots of truly per. varieties. Go find an old gardening book on them. Not the florists mums you see now. I rarely buy mums not becuase of like or dislike but because by the end of summer my gardening budget is gone or what ever is left will go for bulbs.

  15. I like mums well enough. I planted one several years ago (it’s a nice bronzey-rose shade)and it has come back every year and even multiplied. Its foliage looks good during the summer months and then there’s a nice fall display of flowers. ‘Sheffield Pink’ is a single salmon-pink mum I’ve also had in my borders.

    I’ve tried Jap. anemones twice now and they’ve never survived–don’t know what the problem is.

    Bev: I’ve been to McCrillis gardens and have a few photos of it on my blog. How nice for you to be working there.

  16. Julia;

    What’s the name of your blog? I’d love to see it.

    And by the way, Brooke I’m a girl and I like football, too. For the life of me I don’t know why, though.
    And the Redskins have severely tested my loyalty since 1991.

  17. I avoid football for my own emotional safety. Being a fan seems to involve so much angst.

    Julie or Bev, I want to see those McCrillis Gardens photos myself. The website I visied had very little.

  18. Well, believe it or not, it’s hot in Buffalo through September, too–but in terms of plants, there’s not a lot of action–I should say “end of season.”

  19. What I like about chrysanthemums (except I would rather call them crysanths than “mums”) is their scent…sharp and autumnal and almost but not quite unpleasant. I have some here and there that I have planted in the ground which look every bit as naturalistic as, say, a clump of low asters.

  20. Here in MA it the law that the day after labor day you have to put the following on your porch…3 Mums,2 pumpkins and a scarecrow!!! That said, I like them, but then I love the fall here in New England! In my old home country of England, Mums are perennials, my neighbour used to have a whole bed full, so I planted mine a couple of years back, and 60% returned, even after snow, ice and artic temps!

  21. Yes, you have to keep in mind that the mums you see in pots in the fall are forced. Can’t expect them to behave natural after that, now can we? I don’t really care for the smell myself, but I do grow one that was given to me as a passalong plant in spring, and it goes well with my colchicums. The key to getting hardy mums to winter over is to plant them as little starts in spring.

    And about those colchicums: I can’t believe a woman who has confessed to a triple-digit bulb order would really be “too cheap to spring for the fairly expensive bulbs.” The reason they are more expensive is not because they are slow to reproduce but because they must be shipped ahead of the rest of the fall-planted bulbs. Economies of scale and all that. And while some are picky about drainage, most are not. My clay soil happily supports over a dozen different kinds. And I have dug up the Colchicum byzantinums that were here when I moved in three or four times now, each time filling a paper grocery bag half full. So you buy one bulb, tucked in with your tulip order from Brent & Becky’s, wait two years and you will have a dozen offsets to replant, and in another year they will look spectacular.

    Kathy the colchicum evangelist.

  22. Hey Kathy, that was Michele who said she was too cheap to spring for the expensive bulbs. I did buy 1 once–maybe it was 3–and the reason I’m not sure is that they never came back. Only one even bloomed. A bunch of fall crocus I bought disappeared as well.

    I’ll try–and buy–anything at least once. As for mums, though–just don’t like ’em.

  23. eliz, I remember encouraging you to give colchicums a second chance at GWI. But in the above comment I cavalierly lumped you and Michele together in my evangelistic fervor.

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