An aster is like the best friend who can always cheer you up when you’re feeling blue.
So, I can’t explain why I haven’t planted more of them. While I enjoy mums for creating fall vignettes and filling pots each autumn, I’d rather plant asters for fall color in the perennial garden.
Bees hum contently as they dine on the pollen, sharing their meal in fine communal spirit with butterflies and other pollinating insects. Even brushing against the plant doesn’t dislodge them from their feast. Some butterflies use asters as host plants.
Mine are medium to tall varieties of classic New England asters in shades of deep lavender purple and hot pink. Flowers are relatively small and daisy-like. These asters tend to show a lot of leg, but their woody stems and height seem to suit the season, plus they hold their own against my old-fashioned, unruly goldenrod. When it shoves, asters shove back.
You’ll find shorter cultivars, too, and you may have to look closely at labels. Some aster varieties have been reclassified with names like Ionactis, Eurybia and Doellingeria, which look unpronounceable, but are still asters.
Plant asters in early fall so they have time to establish roots. They need a sunny or mostly sunny location in well-drained, average to loamy soil. Wet locations will cause root rot.
Horticulturists suggest adding superphosphate or organic rock phosphate mixed into the planting hole — a teaspoon or two mixed into the soil — to encourage rooting. Asters don’t require frequent fertilizing. In spring, dress plants with compost or scratch in a favorite organic fertilizer into the soil.
Like mums, asters need to be pinched and divided. Pinching creates better branching and more flowers, but stop by July 4 or you won’t have any blooms. Deadhead to prevent reseeding and divide plants every two or three years. Asters look great set off by ornamental grasses, as well as chunky-monkey varieties of sedums.
“Bluebird” offers a profusion of sky-blue flowers in clusters on a 4-foot-tall plant, while lavender-blue “October Skies” is shorter and bushier at 18-inches tall with scented foliage. “Aster Wood’s Blue” is blue with yellow centers with fine foliage at medium height. “White” is a sport of “Wood’s Blue,” a late summer bloomer in fresh white with gold centers and dark green foliage on a short plant.
Several New England asters are worth a look, including “Purple Dome,” a dwarf variety that produces rich purple blooms with yellow centers and “September Ruby,” a beautiful aster with ruby-rose flowers, large yellow-orange centers and rich green foliage. I love the color and form of this aster, whose arching stems give it a graceful appearance.
Aster “Frikartii” tends to be as tall as it is wide, a frothy mound of lavender-blue flowers with yellow centers on thick, upright stems. This one has always been considered one of the best asters for both performance and looks. “Alma Potschke Aster” has reddish-pink flowers with yellow centers, considered quite showy.
Michaelmas daisies are asters, and “Eventide” is a sweet lavender-purple, semi-double flower with yellow center forming on the ends of branches. Plants grow about 30 inches tall. “Crimson Brocade” has deep magenta-red, semi-double flowers that cluster at the ends of branches.
The shape of “Bonny Blue” flowers reminds me of spoon-tipped mums. These are late-season, semi-double bloomers in a beautiful shade of lavender-blue accented by white centers. Plants are short, reaching from 12 to 15 inches high.