Summer aster disaster has drained color from the garden


The mainstay of our autumn garden has been asters, but after a hard summer mine are gone — and so is the color in our garden.

I’ve grown several kinds of asters over the years. My favorites are New England asters (now classified as Symphotrichum novae-anglia), which usually light up our garden from mid-September until frost.

They’re favorites not only because of the burst of bright color they provide but for their benefit to wildlife. The plants are native to eastern North America from Texas through the Mississippi valley to Saskatchewan. They’re hosts to many kinds of butterfly and moth larvae and provide nectar for adult butterflies and other migrating insects.

New England asters have abundant small (half-inch to inch wide) flowers with bright yellow centers. The petals are purple, pink, rose or white. They do best in full sun and well-drained soil. They develop weak stems if given abundant moisture and partial shade. Like fall flowering chrysanthemums, asters can be pinched back early in the summer to promote more compact growth.

‘Purple Dome,’ a short New England aster, was my favorite until my plants literally burned up this summer. They grew along the public sidewalk, and the reflected heat combined with the dry weather was too much for the plants. The burnt-up stems are still standing at the edge of the bed, so when I clean up I’ll mark the spots to plant replacements next spring. I love their neon purple blossoms, and since the plants are only about 15 inches tall when in flower, I never have to worry about them flopping.

I planted ‘Alert’ in the same bed since it was supposed to be a rose red version of ‘Purple Dome,’ but I didn’t like the flowers as well. They were only about half the size of the purple ones. Finally, about three years ago I found ‘Vibrant Dome,’ which is a vivid rose version of ‘Purple Dome.’ Like many asters, all three of these plants are prone to mildew.

A taller aster, ‘Alma Potschke,’ managed to survive this summer’s aster disaster — it’s in flower right now. It self-sowed in a shady spot so it’s leaning a bit, but the bees and butterflies don’t seem to mind. It’s loaded with buzzing insects every time I pass it.

I’ve also had success with ‘Lady in Black’ (S. lateriflorum), a nativar. It’s a huge plant, about 4 feet tall, and almost as wide with purple stems and foliage and clouds of small white flowers. I’ve also tried New York asters (S. nov-belgi), which are native to the eastern U.S. and Canada. ‘Professor Kippenburg’ has light blue flowers and is short at about 10 inches tall. It forms a ground cover where it’s happy, which was not in our garden.

These asters are said to be tolerant of black walnut toxins and unattractive to rabbits. I have no black walnut experience, but the local bunnies do a fine job of pinching our asters back in early spring when the foliage is tender. They loved ‘Professor Kippenburg’ to death and sample the ‘Domes’ and ‘Lady in Black’ too. Both thrive despite the nibbling. Mildew is a problem here but worth tolerating for the aster’s flower power.



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