Asters are the highlight plants of the garden at this moment. They are the ones which shine out and provide outstanding colour as the season is otherwise drawing to a close. They lengthen our season of colour and interest in the garden and are again being appreciated as the wonderful plants they are, easy to grow and maintain, trouble free, a wide selection of excellent cultivars available and keeping the show on the road when most others are fading away.
We are unlikely to see displays as were once shown by the Honorary Vicary Gibbs at Aldenham, Hertfordshire, where he had a border of asters which measured 150 metres in length and 15 metres in depth. It must have been a magical display and certainly must have been a late-season border beyond compare.
Their heyday is gone but asters are certainly making a comeback as popular garden plants with the great benefit that the cultivars now available have been developed to be far more disease resistant and, generally, chosen to be more carefree for the gardener with most not requiring staking, for example. Their use by Piet Oudolf in his grass plantings has, perhaps, brought them to attention in recent years and they do combine wonderfully with grasses, especially the taller cultivars such as ‘Little Carlow’.
Alan Bloom, of the famous “Foggy Bottom” in Bressingham, was hugely enthusiastic about asters and used them prolifically in his borders and beds. He will always be associated with the “island bed” which was seen as innovative and daring at the time but also for the extensive range of perennial plants which he bred, introduced and championed and among these asters had a significant presence. They were favourites also of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson in their day.
Percy Picton was another great champion of asters and despite a lifetime in horticulture it is, perhaps, his appearance, with Valerie Finnis, on the first gardening programmes to be produced in colour in the early 1970s – oh, my god, but that does date us! – that brought him to a wider audience and national attention. Percy Picton began his career in Sir Thomas Barlow’s garden near Wendover, went on to work for fifteen years with William Robinson at Grevetye Manor when Ernest Markham was head gardener there, worked with the great alpine plant grower, W.E.Th.Ingwersen, when he set up a nursery on land provided by William Robinson, moved to Hagley Court, the garden of Miss Daisy Hopton, and became head gardener there in 1934. On Miss Hopton’s death and the sale of the property he was sought – we would say “headhunted” nowadays – to assist the aging Ernest Ballard in his Old Court Nursery in 1947. Ernest Ballard was an accomplished breeder of asters who had established the Old Court Nurseries in 1906 and Percy reinvigorated the nurseries, propagating the promising aster cultivars in big numbers and also diversifying the range of plants stocked and services offered. Ernest Ballard died in 1952 and his widow kept the nursery until 1956 when she sold it to Percy. The enthusiasm for asters continues at Old Court Nurseries where Percy’s son, Paul, and Paul’s daughter, Helen, produce a wonderful selection of autumn-flowering asters. Such is the pedigree of these two aster enthusiasts and it is no wonder that Timber Press asked them to write “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Asters”.
This is one of a series of such books, “The Plant Lover’s Guide to…” and I have written about others previously. None in the series has failed to impress me but this one has enthused me and I certainly feel a very strong urge to include more asters in the garden. The layout is as in the others of this series, some introductory chapters on “Designing with Asters” and “Understanding Asters” leading to the main body of the book, “101 Asters for the Garden”, where a selection of the very best is illustrated and described in detail and followed by notes on Growing and Propagation. Everything about the book is excellent but what struck me as outstanding was the introductory descriptive note on each of the selected asters in the main body of the book. Rarely have I seen such succinct, precise and clear descriptions of plants. In a matter of four or five lines, in most cases, the reader knows the outstanding features of the plant in question and will know if it is one which would suit his/her purpose. It is a rare example of perfect descriptive writing. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am deeply in love with asters!
Two points of interest: We all know Aster frikartii ‘Monch’, possibly the aster which has been most popular in recent years. It was named after a famous peak in Switzerland which I have visited. It was bred by a Carl Ludwig Frikart in 1918 but I hadn’t realised that there were two companion plants named at the same time, the others being ‘Eiger’ and ‘Jungfrau’ and together they are the three famous peaks which form a massive wall overlooking the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland. I have been to the area and have walked (not “climbed” I can assure you) around these peaks and now feel I must seek out all three asters so as to have a memento in the garden of good times spent there. Plants are always better than fridge magnets!
While reading the book I looked at the availability list for Kilmurry Nursery, near Gorey in Co. Wexford, and found they listed about a dozen asters and all but one were included in the recommended list in this book. So, it is good that they are available to us so conveniently.
So, you have a wonderful book to inform and guide you and a convenient source of these gorgeous plants. Over to you!
The Plant Lover’s Guide to Asters, Paul Picton & Helen Picton, Timber Press, 2015, Hardback, 246 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60469-518-2, £20