Stronger, higher, Aster

A rare try at growing asters failed so Peter Dowdall invites gardeners to join him in trying again for next year.

It’s a funny time of the year isn’t it? Not yet autumn but summer is definitely on the wane. The evenings are getting cooler now and darkness is creeping in a bit earlier each evening. It’s easy to feel a bit cheated when we haven’t had a decent summer.

It’s too soon for the year to think about slowing down because we haven’t had a run of good weather yet. However, there’s still every chance we’ll get a nice week or two before all go back to school and I think there’s something special about the August sunshine when we do get it.

These are possibly the last rays of the summer for another year, and when we do get it — be sure to put the feet up and enjoy the fruits of all your hard work.

The garden is truly alive, perennials are in flower, Buddleias and late summer shrubs are doing their thing, sunflowers, sweet peas and other annuals, which started off the year as seeds, are now fully grown and blossoming.

I counted six bees on one sunflower yesterday. It’s amazing to watch the activity of the bees and butterflies and even the less desirable garden inhabitants such as slugs, snails and ants, amazing to watch them all doing their thing in what may seem to be random and disorganized patterns.

They’re not of course. Each movement and flight-path is carefully thought out in advance, each of the thousands of little insects has an important job to do, an essential role in the group, be it the worker bee collecting nectar for the hive or ants collecting food for the army at home.

As well as the Hydrangeas, synonymous with this time of the year, a plant which I used to grow when I was younger but haven’t grown for years now, is the annual bedding Aster or, more correctly Callistephus chinensis.

Technically a genus of one species in the Asteracae family, the Callistephus is known in this part of the world as Aster. In fact I was only aware of this Aster for several years until I discovered the true perennial forms, which also offer great colour during late summer and autumn and even into Michaelmas, hence their common name, the Michaelmas Daisy.

The annual form has been intensively hybridised, with many seed companies offering their own special mix of colours. Plants will normally grow about 20cm high and produce several flowers in vivid shades of mauve, white and pink.

They really are a lovely little bedding plant for colour at this time of the year but one of the things that they can suffer from is Aster Wilt. A type of fungal infection called Fusarium oxysporum, there really is nothing to do if your plants develop this but throw them out and don’t grow Asters in that soil again for a number of years.

Look for resistant varieties whether you grow them from seed or as little plants from the garden centre. One of the varieties that I tried for a few years in a row as a child —and never had much success with —was Aster ‘Ostrich Plume Mix’ and so earlier this year when I decided once more try these annual favourites, I did a quick search and sure enough Sutton’s still do that collection. 

So I got myself a packet of seed and into the seed tray they went with the best of compost, nice and warm and moist for them. 

Confident that in the intervening ten or more years (ahem), since I last grew them I had gained more skill, ability and confidence, these seeds would germinate well and, once more during the lovely August sunshine, my garden would be alive with graceful, airy, feathery plumes.

Now in the intervening years I have become a professional horticulturist and garden designer. I can’t tell you how many plants I have grown from seed and cutting, or how many plants have passed through my hands in garden centres and gardens that I have helped to create.

Do you think that these Asters grew for me? Not one germinated and I can’t for the life of me figure it out. Perhaps too damp or too cold, but I don’t think so. One thing is for sure though, it’s made me more determined than ever for next year. 

I’ll be trying several different packets from several different seed companies. I’ll keep you posted as to my progress and hopefully my garden will be awash with masses of different coloured, and different shaped Asters next August as we grasp the last of the summer weather.


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