Well, life is pretty much back to normal after the power outage I told you about last week. Even so, I hope the event has left an indelible mark on my view of resources. The water coming out of the tap is now more valuable to me. The light that comes on so readily, allowing me to get prepared for the day, is appreciated much more.
If something like that was going to happen, it couldn’t have occurred at a better time as far as the seasons go. Heck, it was dark, but it wasn’t extremely hot or cold. We kept dry just fine. I can’t imagine what our fellow citizens are experiencing in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. During times of extreme trial, there’s an opportunity for the best in people to come to the forefront. I’ve been heartened to see so many come to the aid of those in need. I trust you’ve been encouraged as well.
Autumn is one of my favorite times of the year. Frankly, as much as I enjoy gardening and the outdoor life we live during warmth (that’s a euphemism for “when it’s blasted hot”), the cool air is a nice change and the colors of our fall landscape are especially attractive.
However, when the leaves change then start to drop, it can look pretty stark pretty fast. That is, if there hasn’t been some thought and action taken to plant the right varieties that provide interest beyond the spring and summer blooming season. Spring-flowering annuals and perennials are only one prong of the attack plan to create multi-seasonal interest.
Other factors to enhance the view outdoors include bark colors and textures, interesting shapes of trunks and branches when leafless, the use of evergreens and making sure you have plants that bloom heartily in the later summer and into the fall.
That’s where asters come in.
Asters are a relative newcomer to our garden setting. I added some last year and they have proved extremely worthwhile right off the bat. I should have made use of them long ago! While their bloom shape has been compared to a daisy, I think the flower also resembles a chrysanthemum. They come in a variety of colors, including blue, pink and white hues. They are prolific bloomers, so they produce a noticeable splash of color. When they do bloom, they are even more conspicuous because there is not that much else on display from late summer into autumn.
Add to this the fact that they are perennials and you can see why I endorse them so heartily. They aren’t finicky and will do fine in full sun to light shade. They don’t like to be in wet or soggy soil, so provide adequate drainage. Asters do like moisture though, and will flourish during a rainy season. Another trait I especially like? Their ability to resist the wind (at least the shrub types). Yep, even in those gale-force winds that took down power lines last week, they came through with “flying colors” thanks to some moderate wind protection and their compact and rounded form.
When you look at the flowers and see their somewhat star shape, their name makes sense. “Aster” is the Latin word for “star.” It’s easy to see the resemblance. Those plentiful blooms will be found on a wide variety of cultivars and are not only available in differing colors, but differing heights as well. You can get asters that are only 8 inches tall (is that a tall ground cover or a low shrub — you be the judge) and up to eight feet tall.
Depending on how you look at it, they can be either some serious competition or a great complement to those hollyhocks you may already be enjoying! These tall aster varieties make good back-of-the-border plants. Be aware that the taller varieties will be more susceptible to wind damage than the shrub types. If you do use the tall specimens, back them up against a fence, or have them surrounded by complementary plants that will help deflect wind and give visual interest at the same time.
When a nice plant is a perennial, that’s a real plus as far as I’m concerned. When it’s also easy to propagate, well, I just gotta have it! And so it is with asters. They can be readily obtained from your favorite nursery and planted in spring. Amending the soil with compost is appreciated by the aster. Dig the planting hole roughly twice the size of the growing pot and place the root ball level with the surface of the soil.
Mulching will benefit the aster, like it does many plants, by retaining moisture, reducing weed growth and building the soil as the mulch breaks down further. For this reason, mulching is an ongoing practice, not a one-time event!
You will need to space the plants as called for depending on the variety you obtain. Keep in mind that the plants will naturalize (this allows them to be put in larger “meadow” type plantings as well with great multi-year success), so you’ll need to divide them about every three to four years. These will keep them healthy. Many of the plant’s new shoots can be pinched back early in the growing season to encourage the plant to take on a bushier shape with more blooms.
When the killing frosts do come, the top growth of the aster will die, even though the plant is a perennial. Unlike a woody perennial, where the growth above the soil surface overwinters, herbaceous perennials (like aster, rhubarb and hibiscus) lose their top growth to the cold. When this happens, simply cut your aster plant off a couple of inches above ground level. The fun will start all over again come spring!
As you might suspect, the aster is also a great host to butterflies, bees and other pollinators. For beekeepers, this is another plus, as the aster will provide both pollen (the bee’s protein source) and nectar later in the season when the bees need to build their stores for the winter.
When it does come time to divide your plants, it’s easy to do. Simply wait until new growth begins when it starts to warm up again. Then gently dig up (this is called “lifting”) the root ball. Divide the ball into clumps (I use a large, old serrated kitchen knife for these kinds of tasks) so that each has three to five robust shoots. Plant them in new locations, or give some away so others can enjoy this great plant.
I already have in mind several spots around our place to plant various varieties of aster next spring. I bet there’s a prime place in your yardscape for our colorful late-season friend as well.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.