In the autumn, when the garden is fading into lovely beige tones and the front porch needs a new personality, nothing gets scooped up faster in a garden center, in a shorter period of time, than the big, poufy, colorful and hardy chrysanthemum. It speaks to us of autumn––fall winds, cornstalks, pumpkins, gourds and Halloween. The first flower we put out on the front stoop in September is a fresh, plump and rounded mum plant. They go into bushel baskets, iron planters, urns and wooden vegetable crates. The falling leaves scatter around, and the scene is set for raking leaves, lighting fires in chimineas, and kids coming home from school in the afternoon.
Our south lot at Sickles is the loading zone of thousands of mums in neat, color-organized rows. Trucks come early in the morning and throw their ramps down, while we furiously unload them, stacking each one tightly against the other on shelves. Looking at them from afar, they’re like a caravan of small button plants. The mums usually arrive with tight buds which slowly unfold as the hours of daylight get shorter. Chrysanthemums are “photoperiodic,” meaning that they bloom in response to the shorter days and longer nights. That’s the beauty of this flower—they need less light, and are perfect for autumn.
Mums, you may be surprised to learn, are part of the huge Aster family and their flowers are not one, but many small flowers crammed onto one stalk to make a single large flower. First cultivated in China, they are a sacred and revered flower. The name comes from the Greek––Crys for golden and anthemom for flower. In Asia, this fat, bushy plant is used for making tea by boiling the white and yellow flowers. It’s the official flower of Beijing and is said to have been introduced to western civilization by the famous explorer Marco Polo.
Chrysanthemum leaves, with their strong, heady odor, are used in Asian cuisine and as an aid for treating influenza. The flower is steeped in folklore as well as practicality. Pyrethrins—natural chemicals that affect the nervous system of insects—are made from crushed chrysanthemum flowers and are used in thousands of household and garden insecticides throughout the world. Marigolds in our summer vegetable gardens are closely related to the chrysanthemum and are often planted beside veggies to deter insects.
Coming in vibrant colors, the mum is the number one plant from September to October, and mum farmers are furiously digging them out of the local New Jersey fields. Once dug, they are quickly trucked to us still dripping with morning dew.
From start to finish, the field-grown hardy chrysanthemum goes through quite a routine before it gets to your porch and sits beside your cornstalks, hay and pumpkins. No easy feat, the grower must pay close attention to each and every plant as it grows, pinching them back at least three times before the end of July to encourage the plants to take on that plump, fat look we all appreciate.
In your garden, the hardy mums can be planted in any spot with direct sun and good drainage. This keeps them from sitting in wet soil and rotting. A bit of protection during the winter is recommended. Keeping the dead branches on the plant until spring helps insulate the roots. New growth will poke through the soil in spring. As the mum grows in your garden from spring to fall, it’s important to pinch them back often, up until July. In other words, cutting new growth helps the plant maintain its bushy, multi-flowered shape.
Another related plant of the season is the chunky, floral chrysanthemum. Although not hardy in our gardens, they give us huge vibrant flowers indoors and grace our Thanksgiving and harvest tables with long lasting, crisp blossoms. Of this variety, the very large Football Mum and the Spider Mum are available in the greenhouse, and both are deliciously wild with color and personality.
It’s dizzying how many mums come into our lives here at Sickles Market in a month’s time. What they endure to make it to your front porch each September is miraculous in itself. Call it a sea of mums, a plethora of mums or just 10,000-plus mums. Our farm smells delicious and inviting with the fragrance of flowers, apple cider, hay and warm spirits.