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Gardener's Dirt: Ease garden work with native asters

By By Suzann Herricks - Victoria County Master Gardener Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Nov. 10, 2011 at 5:10 a.m.

The wild fall aster, with a 2- to 3-foot mounding spread, blooms prolific lavender flowers with yellow centers into late fall.

Reasons to Plant Asters

2- to 3-foot mounding habit

Drought tolerant

Perennial

Late fall bloomer

Low care

Companion Plants

Mexican mint marigold

Copper Canyon daisy

Mexican bush sage

Lantana

Philippine violet

Marigold

What person does not want to make gardening easier, yet aesthetically pleasing? Our recent excessively hot, dry summers and colder winters have motivated my search for plants that will survive both extremes with minimum care. One plant that meet the criteria is the wild fall aster (Aster oblongifolius) sometimes called "Aromatic American" or "Prairie Aster." Throughout summer, this long-lived, incredible performer sports fine, beautifully textured foliage and in late fall, bursts forth with an explosion of lavender, yellow-centered, daisy-like flowers. It is a native of Texas, as well as several other states.

Low-care plants

One way to ease your work in the garden is to grow low-care plants, like the aster. They do not need to be over watered or over fertilized and prefer full sun or light shade and good drainage. It is a water-wise choice for rock gardens or xeriscaping. To encourage fuller blooms and a more compact mounding habit, simply cut them back by a third around July 1.

Further consolidate gardening chores by grouping plants with the same moisture, nutrient and light requirements. Some companion plants for the aster are Mexican mint marigold, Copper Canyon daisy, Mexican bush sage, marigolds, white purple trailing lantana or Philippine violets.

Late-blooming perennial

The Texas native aster is one of our toughest and latest blooming perennials and will extend color in your landscape into late autumn.

Because perennials return from the same root stock each year, they are a favorite choice of the frugal and informed gardener.

In my earlier gardening days, I thought that when a plant died back, it should be dug up and replaced. I didn't know that a plant by any other name might be a perennial and would happily return the following season.

When cutting back perennials and mulching for the winter season, it is a good idea to place a marker on the spots so you will not inadvertently dig them up in a burst of spring enthusiasm. Adding a heavier layer of mulch on top of them in late fall will hold the soil's natural warmth and help preserve most perennials, even throughout the coldest winters. In a mild winter, the native aster may not have to be cut back at all.

Ubiquitous, prolific blooms

Aster is the Latin word for star, and its prolific daisy-like blooms mimic that definition. In medieval times, asters were believed to repel snakes. I haven't tested them for that quality; however, I have not, to date, encountered a snake among my asters. A popular hybrid is the Michaelmas Daisy, named in honor of St. Michael's birthday which falls on the 29th of September and coincides with its peak bloom time. The native aster located in the butterfly garden of the Victoria Educational Gardens burst into bloom on Oct. 12.

There are about 250 species worldwide including six native Texas perennial asters that are hard to tell apart. Because the wild fall aster is not commonly stocked by most garden centers, you are most likely to find them in a nursery that specializes in native plants or wildflowers.

If you are lucky enough to have a friend who has them, perhaps they will share some with you when they divide their plants in the spring.

Maintaining healthy plants

Regular division of asters will keep them healthy and resistant to disease although they have few pest or disease problems. It colonizes by rhizomes, but is easily contained. The foliage is attractive, but can almost be overlooked until blooms appear making it a good filler plant.

It is a favorite nectar source for bees, small to medium-sized butterflies, and skippers that arrive in late autumn.

Propagation is best accomplished by cuttings or division.

Visit VEG to see them

To see the wild fall aster in a garden setting, visit the Victoria Educational Gardens across from the tower at Victoria Regional Airport.

Two native asters are located in the butterfly garden just inside the entry gate and additional specimens grow in the International garden.

If you have not yet visited VEG, it is worth a short drive to see these beautifully-maintained grounds filled with hundreds of demonstration plants that can inspire your own landscape design.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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