SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 27, 2013

Can I plant my store-bought mums?

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: I see mums of all colors at the grocery store at a very good price. Are they just for inside use or for planting outside next spring?

A: Are you ready to say goodbye to summer? Mums are here, and they make a fine transition between seasons, as we are getting close to the end of the growing season. Mums are called “the last flash of lighting in the garden,” but we must prepare for that flash if we expect it to come at all. The question is not “Do you want to grow mums,” but rather, “How many do you want?”

Mums are especially economical perennial plants, and they are at their best right now. Remember last spring? You were paying at least $15 for a potted perennial plant that was not even in bloom. In the fall, you can buy a pot of perennial mums, in full bloom, for less than $5. Mums also do double duty as permanent garden plants, temporary houseplants, gifts and decorations.

Where else can you buy an armload of flowers that will decorate the whole house, inside and out, and then be planted permanently in your garden?

First, you can use them outside on the front steps, inside on the table for a centerpiece, or in a basket by the fireplace. They can be a gorgeous, living gift for a friend — think mums for a hospital or nursing-home gift. They are long-lasting, do not need attention and are not messy.

You could use pots of mums to decorate a room for a special party, anniversaries or political rallies, and then the plant could go home as a raffle prize. These very same plants, for less than $5 a blooming pot, turn right around and have a second life, going straight out into the garden where they will live for many years and help landscape and add value to your property.

Try doing that with a bunch of daisies or a cut-flower arrangement. Mums really do give double the value and double the enjoyment.

If you use mum plants indoors first, here are hints to keep them healthy:

Keep them in the brightest spot possible.

Keep them evenly moist — don’t ever let them dry out.

Keep them cool — good air circulation is important.

At first sign of yellowing of leaves (usually from the bottom of the plant), rush the plant outdoors and plant it in the garden, into its permanent spot.

The plants that you buy now have been nurtured, fed, watered and pinched, and will most certainly be well-budded or in full bloom. Plant them properly this year, and they will be back — it is simple: For the best flowers, plant mums in full sun. Prepare a properly dug hole for the pot size — like a tree or shrub, the hole should be twice as wide as the pot. Prepare the soil in the hole well, allowing the new plant plenty of room to spread its roots. Add a little fertilizer — it should be dug into the hole and watered in well so the roots will not burn, and the plant gets the benefit of the fertilizer being readily available. Tamp the earth firmly around the base of the plant — you will have an instant garden this year and a healthy perennial addition to your garden the next.

Although mums tolerate a light frost, you might want to prolong their color a bit longer by covering them with light sheets or blankets or even newspapers on very cold nights.

As the month goes on, the foliage will yellow first, and then the flowers will fade and die. Cut stems to the ground after killing frosts and mulch well after a hard freeze. Now sit back and enjoy your mums for this year, because the end is near!

Q: How late in the season can I prune my lilac bush without doing any harm to next spring’s blooms?

A: Lilac, like all early-blooming plants, are pruned immediately after blooming to prevent harming the next year’s buds, which are forming now. Of course any diseased wood can be pruned anytime. If your lilacs need immediate pruning, prune anytime. Sometimes this is necessary — for example, during construction — but still expect a year’s loss of flowers.

Q: Early last spring, I wrote to you about my son’s desire to plant pumpkins for Halloween. We followed your instructions, and you know what? We have pumpkins! Now what? Some of the nights are close to freezing. Most of the pumpkins (about 20) and gourds have turned orange and are ready for picking. The leaves of the vines have dried up. I do not have a cool, dry place to store them and do not have a root cellar. Can you suggest storage instructions to maximize the life of the pumpkins? Will the pumpkins benefit from a wipe of bleach or rubbing alcohol?

A: Harvest time has come! You and your son have quite a nice pumpkin patch! And you have gourds, too!

Allow the vines and leaves to die naturally. Harvest when the vines have died, but don’t wait until the frost kills the vine — that is too late and too cold for pumpkins.

Cut your pumpkins off the vine with a sharp knife or clippers, allowing a 6-inch stem to avoid rot. Do not pick them up and carry them by the stem — they are heavy, and the stem might break off and start rotting faster.

Yes, it is thought that pumpkins and gourds (and squash) will mold less if they are carefully washed with a solution of soapy water and bleach to deter molds. Use a solution of one part chlorine bleach to 10 parts soapy water. Be sure to pat them dry with a soft cloth before storing. Pumpkins are usually “cured” for 10 days in a sunless place after harvesting. Cure at temperatures between 80 and 85 degrees and high humidity. After curing, move the pumpkins to the storage area.

You will need to find an indoor storage place — a barn, cellar or enclosed porch — that is dry, cool, away from sun, frost-free and less humid than the curing area — maybe a friend can help you out. If stored properly, they should keep at least two to three months.

Place the pumpkins in the storage area in a single layer on a wooden pallet or shelves — not on a concrete floor — and watch them carefully every few days for signs of rot. Do not allow them to touch each other. Discard molding pieces — mold spreads very quickly. About 60 percent humidity is necessary, however, to prevent dehydration.

Never store pumpkins near apples. Ethylene gas produced when apples ripen decreases safe storage time of almost any ripening fruit or veggie.

Many gardeners set their fruit on sheets of dry newspaper, changing them every few days to prevent rot. Use a fan in your storage area to assure good air circulation.

Good job! We will all be thinking about you on Oct. 31!

This week’s dirt: Begin your fall cleanup now — it will make it easier to do a little this fall ... and the weather is certainly nicer! As the summer winds down, do not leave the entire cleanup job to spring and cold weather when it is uncomfortable to garden. Besides, you will have other things to do later on, like planting spring bulbs and raking leaves.

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North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at nsgardener@comcast.net or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.