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The Greener View: Mums and Bulbs

Jeff Rugg on

Q: I love chrysanthemums. I buy several colors of them each fall. I have tried planting them in the ground but they have never come back in the spring. Any suggestions?

A: There are several reasons that they don't make it through the winter. First, you need to buy a hardy variety. There are around 20 species of mums and thousands of varieties. The different species may be cold hardy from Zones 7 to 4 in the north and as far south as Zone 9. If you live in Zone 5 and plant a mum only hardy to Zone 6 it is possible that it will die over the winter. Some of the prettiest mums are called florist's chrysanthemums and they are the least hardy, maybe to Zone 7.

Second, to protect garden mums from winter damage, wait until the top has been killed by frost. Cut the dead top off at about two inches above the ground. After several hard frosts, cover the plant with six to eight inches of mulch. This stops the alternating freeze-thaw cycles that can kill the roots. Remove about half the mulch in the spring as the new growth begins to grow.

Third, the soil in the flower pot is probably very different from the garden soil. It is likely to just be peat moss and some bark chips or perlite. It will dry out very quickly. Winter air is very dry and even slight winds will dry off the soil. The mulch will help but if there is no snow cover, you may need to water the plants a few times over the winter.

Q: Is it too late to plant flower bulbs like tulips? I bought them early but didn't plant them yet. I don't want to do all the work in the garden if they won't grow. Can I pot them up and store them in the garage refrigerator for the winter and plant them in the spring?

A: Fall-planted spring-flowering bulbs grow roots when the ground temperature at bulb level is over 40 degrees. Even if the top of the soil is starting to freeze, larger bulbs like tulips and daffodils that are planted as much as six inches deep can still grow roots. Small bulbs like crocus that are planted in the top couple of inches may not be able to grow roots.

I once planted several species and many varieties of bulbs very late in the fall. There were varieties that were supposed to bloom in early, mid and late spring. Since none of them grew roots in the fall, they did that in the spring and then they all bloomed at once in late spring.


For most gardeners in northern areas, it is better that the bulbs are in the ground in the fall, even if planted late. Southern gardeners who don't have cold enough winters to give the bulbs proper growing conditions may buy the bulbs in pots in the spring. Those pots have been kept in refrigerators over the winter.

You can do this yourself. Plant the bulbs in pots with normal potting soil for house plants. The wider the pot the better. We don't need a lot of roots like we would for a houseplant, so a shallow, wide pot allows more bulbs to grow in the pot for a better display of flowers in the spring. You can plant large bulbs near the bottom of the pot and small bulbs above them so that there are two levels of flowers. You can plant small bulbs on one side and large bulbs on the other side for a one-sided display. You can plant one kind of bulb in each pot so that as a pot comes into bloom it can be added to the display and as it goes out of bloom it can be removed.

After it is potted up, water the soil. Since refrigerators dry out everything that is in them, it is a good idea to place the pot in a sealed plastic bag. After at least 90 days, take the pots out and let the plants grow in a bright but cool location. You need to give them spring weather conditions, not hot summer conditions for the best flower display.


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