Make Our Pollinators Happy (and You Too)!
Posted: August 18, 2011
by Elizabeth Lux, Master Gardener in Lancaster County
Asters are herbaceous perennials with daisy-like composite flowers. The centers are typically yellow, surrounded by ray petals of light blue, purple, pink, or white. Some more compact varieties are now being bred to only grow 12-24", however some can grow much taller and may require staking. I had some grow as high as 6’ tall! As a result, you should prune or pinch back the stems through the end of June to promote shorter, bushier growth.
This versatile flower can grow almost anywhere from wetlands to dry roadsides; however, they prefer well-drained soil on the acidic side and full sun to part shade. They are drought tolerant, considered deer resistant, and hardy in zones 4-8. Asters are generally without disease and insect problems, although the New York variety can develop powdery mildew. Treating early with horticulture oil or sprays with baking soda are very effective. While many have been especially bred, some species were used by our Native Americans for their healing abilities.
Division and seed sowing are common ways of propagating asters. One word of caution: some species can reseed quickly. However, the benefits the birds get in my garden outweighs the "weeding" which may result. Well-known grower, speaker and writer William Cullina in his book Propagating Wildflowers suggests stem cuttings in the spring. Some species include the Blue Wood aster (A. cordifolius), the White Wood aster (A. divaricatus), Heath aster (A. ericoides), the New England aster (A. novae-angliae) and the New York Aster (A. nov-belgii).
I have always enjoyed the aster since my garden is geared to frequent or late bloomers; but their importance really hit home with me when I was wandering through my garden in September, two years ago, with my camera. When I reached a blue New England aster that I had virtually neglected and was then 6 feet tall, I was surrounded by hundreds of different pollinators. I though it might be an interesting subject for a display and stood in front of it for five minutes taking pictures of its numerous visitors. I am happy to report that that very simple display, Five Minutes in the Life of one Aster, which has been seen in various venues, has been well received.
One last benefit is that aster can also brighten the inside of your home. If you cut them and put in water when the flowers are only half open they can last up to a week. Add them to your landscape. You and your pollinator friends will love them!