It’s funny how plants we think we hate, usually owing to snobbery and lack of imagination, can suddenly not only redeem themselves but also zoom to the top of our favorites list.
Last fall, I planted 40 asters to edge a new flower bed. Asters and mums are the mainstay of the fall garden, along with the rudbeckies and Russian sage, the upright sedums, grasses, hydrangeas and shrubs like viburnum that cover themselves in bright-colored berries.
The asters and mums that are hardy here tend to be stiff in form and texture, their colors bland. I don’t usually buy them. I also don’t buy plants in bulk. but at 99 cents apiece, how could I go wrong? I needed color – any color.
They went into a shady bed. Asters need full sun, but these were clearly annual asters, possibly the lovely a. chinensis ‘Pavlova.’ I’d never seen a more penetrating shade of blue in a perennial aster hardy in Zone 4.
When I pulled off the winter mulch the following April, imagine my surprise to find 40-plus asters alive and well. I moved them at once to a sunnier spot. As the weeks passed and they grew unexpectedly tall and wide, I moved them again.
Asters, especially tall ones, can look weedy when they’re not blooming, which is most of the time. By summer’s end, my mystery plants had been downgraded in my esteem from delightful curiosity to annoying eyesore.
They endured yet a third move, this time to plastic containers stashed behind the tool shed.
I kept them watered, but that was about it, figuring I’d never see those stunning blue flowers again. By midsummer, there was still not a single flower bud. I pruned the plants in July to curb their growth. By now, they’d reached 20 inches.
So what were they?
At first, I figured my asters belonged to the hardy Wood’s family. Nope. When they finally bloomed, the only Wood’s aster they even vaguely resembled was Symphyotrichum dumosum ‘Wood’s Purple.’
These are the so-called New World asters, reclassified years ago and given a new botanical name. Lots of plants are called aster that are something else to a botanist. a few are mums (and vice versa).
A New World aster can be a New York or a New England aster. Wood’s asters are New Englanders. they got their name from Ed Wood, an aster breeder in Portland, Ore., not Maine.
Another blue S. dumosum, ‘Professor Anton Kippenburg (aka Aster novi-belgii ‘Prof Kip’), is hardy to Zone 3 and more similar to mine than the Wood’s asters. it has a double flower like ‘Pavlova.’ it doesn’t have my asters’ habit of opening their many petals from the outer rim to the center to reveal a yellow pistil. nor is it tall.
At this writing, my asters are positively psychedelic. Imagine a larger and darker version of a bachelor’s button flower infused with purple. I’d say they’re ‘Marie Ballard,’ a New York aster that grows to 40 inches.
That midsummer haircut delayed blooming and also made it hard to guess how tall my asters might have grown. mostly in the 30-inch range, they are stunning in containers gracing the front and back porches. In the garden – in the company of upright sedums, ‘Seafoam’ roses, red-berried cotoneasters, yarrow, ‘Silky Gold’ asclepius, California poppies and ‘Moonbeam’ coreopsis – they’re flat-out spectacular.
Other good hardy blue asters:
- ‘Ada Ballard’ (double, 40 inches)
- ‘Anita Ballard’ (single, 6 feet)
- ‘Baby Climax’ (single, 30 inches)
- ‘Blue Boy’ (single, 6 inches)
- ‘Blue Eyes’ (single, 4-1/2 feet)
- ‘Blue Radiance’ (single, 36 inches)
- ‘Climax’ (single, 4-1/2 feet)
- ‘Lady in Blue’ (double, 1 foot)
- ‘Little Boy Blue’ (single, 16 inches)
Contact Bonnie Blodgett at .
THIS WEEK’S TO-DO LIST
- Savor the warm weather, but don’t forget winter will come. Get those bulbs in before it’s too late. October is ideal for most spring-blooming bulbs. November works for tulips as long as the ground is workable.
- Check out my previous weekly to-do lists for other reminders. this week’s is much the same with a single exception. Your No. 1 priority now is watering. after a record wet June, we plunged into a heat wave and then a drought. Annuals may look the prettiest of your flowering plants, but they’re not coming back, so stop obsessing on those hanging baskets and check on the rest of your plants. Plants you neglect to keep hydrated won’t recover when they come out of dormancy next spring. Dehydration takes a heavy toll.
- Conifers will be more vulnerable to the dessicating effects of wind and sun over the winter. Spring will find them brown and crispy if you don’t protect them now. a burlap fence is essential for shrubs like Alberta spruce and Holmstrup arborvitae, even when they’re not dehydrated. you can spray with an anti-dessicating product like Wilt-Prof, but research is inconclusive on whether it works.
- most lawn grasses protect themselves by going dormant, but at some point, your lawn will not come back. Give it a good long drink.
- Perennials will go to seed sooner than usual in dry weather, but don’t assume that means they’re not struggling. Pay attention to shrubs and trees. Golden-brown leaves don’t necessarily mean it’s fall; they can signal stress. Who’s watering the trees on the boulevard strip? the city owns this strip, but don’t expect to see a city employee out there with a hose.
- Now’s a good time to install an irrigation system. make sure to research your options. Don’t just call a pro and hand over the job because a pro won’t know whether you want to focus on garden plants, a vegetable garden or a lawn. Each requires a different setup.
- if you already have an irrigation system, don’t forget it needs to go into winter completely moisture-free. You’ll need to blow out the system with an air compressor. if you forget this chore, the tubing could crack and cause leaks next summer.
- Soaker hoses are the most economical way to water a garden. They’re flexible and keep evaporation to a minimum. they deliver water slowly enough so it can be absorbed even in compacted soil without causing runoff. make sure to run soaker hoses long enough so moisture gets down deep. I use a soaker-hoselike system called Rain Bird, which is available at most home-improvement centers and online.
- if you use a sprinkler or water by hand, watering long but infrequently is better than the daily light sprinkle. Early morning is better than midday.
- Mulching garden beds is a must in dry weather. Mulch holds in moisture, keeps soil cool and weeds under control. at this time of year, of course, a gardener’s thoughts are turning from shredded bark to insulating mulches like marsh hay. more on that next time.