It's mums everywhere one looks. Their shiny, foil-wrapped pots are stacked high in fancy display pyramids at the nursery and crowded in the gardening sections of every home improvement behemoth. They even show up outside of some grocery stores. And, yes, they're pretty enough, and they'll afford blooms for several weeks after most everything else is winding down. Still, they're the stuff of old guard gardeners.
As with any product, there are those behind-the-scenes details which, should they become common knowledge, might influence one's choices. I count mums among those sorts of commodities, because aspects of their production can have a net negative environmental impact. For instance, to get mums to "perform" just when our thoughts have turned to fall leaves, decorative squash and the coming Thanksgiving, mum growers have imposed carefully controlled periods of darkness and have poured on the artificial fertilizers to stimulate blooming. To create those bushy habits consumers have come to expect, mum plants must be pinched back a couple of times early on, but that can be awfully labor intensive -- especially if commercial growers have thousands of mums to tend. To eliminate some of that pinching-back tedium, many turn to chemical "growth regulators." And to combat common mum diseases such as powdery mildew and leaf spot, fungicides are needed. To keep aphids, leaf miners and other insect pests from ruining one's profit margins, insecticides also come into play. Even after all of this, lots of mum buyers simply toss out the plants after their flowers have faded, planning to buy new ones again next year.
If you simply must have mums, ask around before you buy. Often it is possible to find organically grown, local mums which haven't been doused with sundry chemicals and trucked in from hundreds of miles away. If, though, you come up empty -- or you'd simply like to break the fall garden monotony -- you might try something completely different. Fall is a great time to plant blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry shrubs, and, although it may take a couple of years before you (and area birds!) get a bumper crop, you'll know this fall gardening option ultimately will have a net positive environmental impact.
Story by Susan Brackney. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.