Gardenwise: Asters: The Star of the Autumn Garden
by Susan Tito
I get stars in my eyes when I think of these plants — and that has nothing to do with the fact that the word “aster” is derived from the Greek word “astron” and means “star.”
Simply put, there’s no other flower that assumes such a starring role in the fall landscape the way this one does. At a time in the season when many plants are taking a curtain call, the aster is proudly in the limelight.
And what a performance it gives! The aster’s versatility is why everybody should have a few— or a thousand — of them.
Asters grow abundantly in North America, but some species can be found in South America, Europe and Asia. There are pronounced differences among them, however. Some range in size from a little less than a foot tall, while others top out at five or six feet in height. Some plants have broad leaves and others sport thin foliage. Bloom color varies as well, from white and shades of lavender to purple, and varieties are being cultivated all the time to include vibrant red and pink hues.
How best to use aster? That depends on the aesthetic you seek.
“They can be an accent or the dominant plant in a bed,” says Polly Weigand, executive director of the Long Island Native Plant Initiative. “Consider intermixing them with other ornamental species or placing them in grasslands and meadows.”
In my garden, I grow a stately variety of New England aster bursting with glorious, deep purple starry blooms. I pair it with Montauk daisy, and the combination of rich purple and pristine white is downright irresistible. As with many plants on my property, this aster was given to me by a gardening buddy who has since passed away, which makes it especially dear to me.
For gardeners with an eye on the environment, there are many true native species — among them the stiff aster, wood aster, smooth aster and New York aster — to consider. For these folks, choosing a native aster has everything to do with providing sustenance for wildlife.
“As a native plant initiative, we really try to encourage gardeners to plant the true native species of asters and not to use cultivars, which are selected for a particular trait, such as size or color,” said Ms. Weigand. “The challenge with cultivars is that they often don’t have all the reproductive parts, so they may not necessarily provide the same pollinator habitat as what we’re looking for in the natives.”
For those growing cultivated aster varieties, consider plants that are genetically native to Long Island, such as one of the aforementioned true native aster species or other native species such as cardinal flower.
As with any garden, the goal is to have something in bloom throughout the growing season — especially important if you are looking to attract diverse pollinators and provide necessary food resources for them throughout the growing season.
Early in the spring, consider native willow, which provides crucial pollinator resources, as do serviceberry and spring ephemerals like violets. In summer, verbena, milkweed and mountain mint make perfect partners. Late in the season, goldenrod provides crucial food resources and makes an attractive color contrast to the asters’ typically lavender or purple hues.
Although asters are considered fall bloomers, some species kick off the show in very late summer. With a little research and careful planning, you can eke out nearly three months of color in your garden, stretching perhaps to Thanksgiving.
Up to now, I’ve focused on asters’ beauty; however, I would be selling this plant short if I did not mention that they are somewhat deer resistant and don’t require a lot of care. For example, they are tolerant of many different conditions and don’t require supplemental irrigation or fertilizer.
Those are just a few of the reasons Ms. Weigand is such a fan of asters and thinks more gardeners should grow them.
“The aster is a beautiful plant, it’s a hardy plant and it offers a wealth of ecosystem services. When you combine those three factors, it’s a win-win-win,” she said.
With nearly two months of fall yet to come, I anxiously await the colorful flower show my New England aster will put on for me. As of this writing, it’s due to bloom any day now. And when the performance is over for the season, I will take solace in the fact that my aster will make a return engagement next year and shine once again like the star it was always meant to be.
Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Writers Association. She can be reached at email@example.com.