This time of year every garden center I drive past is full of row after row of mums and about nothing else. Even though fall is a great time for planting perennials and shrubs you really dont see much for sale. Just end of the year clearance things that look less than stellar. Some savvy gardeners take advantage of the sales but I think the general public doesnt realize how much they are missing out! Now I understand that if you want a mum or two by your front door for fall decoration they might make sense. But I also see what I think is a surprising amount of landscaping done with mums this time of year. They are some pretty pricey annuals in my opinion!
Instead of mums for fall color in the garden, I turn to our native asters. They are a very important food source for many of our native butterflies and pollinators this time of year and they are pretty too! Most of the mums you find for sale have lots of petals and not lots of pollen so they dont provide a benefit for our native pollinators at a time of year when they really need to fuel up for the long winter months ahead! If you do buy mums, looks for kinds that have single flowers like these so that they are pretty and they have a benefit for our pollinators too.
Previous posts have shown some of the great visitors you can find on our asters. But previous posts have also talked about some of the problems that gardeners have with asters in the garden. Mainly, that they tend to be large and gangly and take up more than their fair share in the garden. They also tend to have what I endearingly call aster ankles and benefit from a shorter plant in front of them to hide their less than picturesque brown stems. Most of the asters that gardeners are familiar with have these problems such as New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii). These are two of the more commonly found native asters for sale. New England Aster gets so tall that it often is guilty of leaning as Ursula Vernon so aptly described in an earlier post. And New York Aster puts out so many runners and spreads so fast that I started weeding it out of my garden thinking it was goldenrod before I realized that I was actually weeding out the very plant I had planted the year before! Now dont get me wrong these are both great plants when in the right place but they can be frustrating for gardeners with smaller spaces. They do best in large perennial borders where they have plenty of room. So I understand that they dont exactly fill the same landscaping niche as mums do. But so what is everyone supposed to do? Just give in and buy mums every year?
Luckily there are a number of smaller, better behaved asters available as well. I think these should be considered as some viable mum substitutions. Some of these are better known than others. Smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and Showy aster (Eurybia spectabilis) are two great options that we grow at our nursery. They both stay much shorter, Smooth aster in the 2-3 range and Showy aster in the 1-2 range. Of the two, I prefer the habit of smooth aster, it stands up pretty straight for the most part, while showy aster tends to be looser and more flopsy. However, showy aster blooms the earliest of any of the asters I have mentioned so it is a great choice for adding color to the garden when many of your summer blooms are done but your fall blooms (like your other asters and maybe your false dragonhead) havent started yet.
Another great choice and perhaps the best match for looking like a mum in terms of habit is New England Aster Purple Dome. This is a dwarf cultivar of New England Aster, and instead of growing 3-5 ft ( or 6 ft like they do in my garden!) like the straight species New England Asters, this little cultivar stays a neat 18-24 making it great for smaller spaces.
There have been many discussion about planting nativars on this blog already and there are good arguments on both sides of the discussion but in my opinion planting purple dome is better than mums since purple dome is great for our pollinators while mums are not. We grow this one at our nursery in New York too and really like it. These are just some of the great native asters that we have in New York. Im sure there are some other great ones out there in other parts of the country that I havent mentioned. And if you cant decide which aster you like the best then try them all out!
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