As I write this, it’s still possible to step outside and pick annual flowers for a modest bouquet. A few zinnias, marigolds, dianthus and petunias withstood autumn rains and threats of frost, but their days are sadly numbered. Any morning now I’ll wake up to sad brown plants that have called it quits. Then it’s time to decorate porch steps and fill windowboxes with the traditional fall flowers that can withstand cooler nights — chrysanthemums and flowering cabbages and kales that brighten dooryards right up to a hard freeze. Pedestrian, not all that thrilling, a bit boring some might say, but these two groups of fall plants can be combined with pumpkins and gourds and the remaining garden shrubs and plants in all sorts of fall arrangements.

For me, choosing a mum plant that will bloom for a long time, and even rebloom after deadheading, seems to be a crapshoot. While conventional wisdom suggests buying plants as they start to break bud to maximize bloom time, in my eagerness to have a long bloom time I’ve bought plants with all the buds so tightly furled that they never opened at all. Choosing one with a few buds partially open, with the remaining ones just on the brink of opening a bit, is wiser. The deeper-colored mums, in shades of bronze and burgundy, tend to look better longer, as the spent blooms are less noticeable, and mums with double, as opposed to single, blooms also have a longer show time.

There are many suggestions for preserving your chrysanthemum plants for future life in the garden, but I tend to treat them as if they were annuals, or a showy seasonal plant like poinsettia — when it’s over, it’s over, and the plants head to the compost. I feel very little guilt for spending money each autumn on plants that could possibly be salvaged because, like tulips, which jump-start the growing season in the spring but often do not rebloom the following season, just a few mums can extend garden bloom in the fall and if they’re treated as an annual, so be it. Not every garden plant is meant to be a long-lasting workhorse, after all.







Once your plants start to open, you’re pretty much guaranteed flowers no matter where you plant them. They’ll be happiest in sun, but if you’re planning to compost them anyway, it’s fine to put your pots on a shady porch. The soil should be moist, but never soggy. If plants dry out, submerge the pots in a bucket of water, or poke holes in the soil with a sharp pencil or chopstick and then water. Fertilizing is not necessary for the time you’ll have your display. Removing faded blooms encourages even more buds to open so you can further extend your plant’s colorful display.

Mixed with mums or on their own, flowering cabbages add ruffly red, pink, purple, and white tones to your fall display and need very minimal care. Flowering cabbage and kale are divided into groups based on the shape of the leaf. Cultivars with smooth leaf margins constitute the flowering-cabbage group while those with divided or fringed leaf margins are flowering kale. Within the kale group there are two types: fringed-leaved cultivars, which have finely ruffled leaf margins, and feather-leaved cultivars, with leaves that are finely serrated and deeply notched. Although they’re called “flowering” kale or cabbage, the plants rarely put out real flowers. The color is all in those ruffled and feathered leaves.

Flowering-kale care is pretty simple. Most important is to never let the plants dry out. Flowering kale grows best in sunny locations and moist, rich soil. It will tolerate light shade but develops richer color in full sun. When planting, sink the plant into the ground so the lower leaves are flush with the soil surface. If you’re keeping them in their pots, sometimes kales expand, creating a leafless stem. Bury this stem and you can continue to enjoy the plant’s foliage.

Keep flowering kale well watered, delivering an inch or so of water a week. They’ll begin to develop their colorful foliage when temperatures dip below 50 degrees, and once acclimated to a site, flowering kale can easily withstand frost. Your mums, however, will not. Keep an eye on the temperatures and some sheets or grow fabric handy to toss over the plants when a frosty night is expected or you’ll be sad the next morning.