Autumn Jewels

Late Season Gifts from Nature

Autumn Jewels callicarpa 10-2-15Debra Knapke

Teresa, Michael and I meet periodically to talk about the blog: its direction and ideas for posts. We always take a walk in the garden before we sit with our coffee (Michael and Teresa) and tea (me) and plan. This time I couldn’t resist taking quick pics of what I think of as “jewel-moments” in the garden. Yes, winter is coming, but fall is my favorite time of the year, and I revel in what the garden has to offer as it moves toward sleep.

Anyone who has seen beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) seldom forgets it. The bright purple fruit clusters truly look like jewels as they float above the branches.

Michael’s has several crabapples (Malus) in his garden. Here are two that not only offer a visual treat, but feed the birds as well. Professor Sprenger crabapple (left) is covered in orange-red fruits. Candied Apple (right) crabapple has a weeping form. The branches of glossy red fruits are suspended between other plants.  Imagine beautiful streamers of soft pink to white flowers in the spring.

I have always loved the seedheads of Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota). Here goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) provides a lovely contrasting background. I have recreated this combination in my home for fall arrangements.  Add some purple asters and the effect is stunning.

Autumn Jewels Queen Annes lace 10-2-15


Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is a native grass that loves to self-seed all over the garden. It, too, is a good addition to fall arrangements. Be forewarned: they are short-lived in dried arrangements as the “oats” shatter in 2-4 weeks when in a warm home.Autumn Jewels sea oats 10-2-15

This heirloom seed strain zinnia is a jewel left over from summer.  This week’s cold spell may end their reign in the garden. As a native of Mexico, zinnias quickly decline when temperatures go below 40°F.Autumn Jewels zinnia 10-2-15

Brown is a beautiful color when contrasted with the sagey-green leaves of false blue indigo (Baptisia australis). The seedpods develop in July and persist into mid-fall.  An added bonus: they softly rattle on windy days and add an auditory experience to a garden. Cherry tomatoes are another last jewel of the summer.  The cooler temperatures have already slowed fruit maturation and tomato flowers are only a memory.

My blogmates discussing how Michael’s garden is senescing and what may change for next year’s garden. As autumn develops and I watch my own garden, I hear the echo of the famous line from Gone with the Wind: “Tomorrow is another day.”

Autumn Jewels Teresa Michael 10-2-15


An Uninvited Guest Spoils the Garden Party

By Michael Leach

His return is as unwelcome as the drop-in visit of a difficult in-law, but instead of a few hours, he hangs around for several months. Still, there’s no keeping him away. Punctual as a Japanese bullet train, the constellation of Orion returns to the pre-dawn sky in late summer.

Ancient myth says this hunter eternally pursues “doves” (the constellation called the Pleiades), who are always just out of Orion’s reach. For me, he’s chasing away summer and dragging in winter.

His ascent in late summer foretells the end of sun-warmed tomatoes, barefoot walks in dewy grass, and idling upon the patio until stars and fireflies twinkle in the almost endless summer twilights. Because summer has been mild, often cloudy and sometimes autumnal in my part of the Midwest, it hardly seems as if there’s been any at all. Thus, spotting Orion on the morning of Aug. 26 made my heart sink farther than usual.

Despite the inevitable, one can live in blissful denial when warm weather lingers after Labor Day, or for that matter, in every warm day between now and Halloween. But the celestial clock ticks on regardless of balmy readings. Winter’s return is only weeks away. In a few months Orion will dominate the icy winter nights with the sparkling brilliance of diamonds scattered upon black velvet.

I try not to think of what lies ahead. Instead, every chance to enjoy the outdoors is taken: eating al fresco meals at the picnic table; reading in a tree-shaded lawn chair, while reveling in the chorus of birds, cicadas and crickets; delighting in bright yellow goldfinches flitting to and fro; and being silly happy with the warmth of sun on chilly afternoons. Soon I’ll be taking walks in woods decorated in colors no paint chip collection rivals.

There are chores — seemingly endless chores — that are part of autumn, too. But those shouldn’t take precedence over savoring what remains of nature’s season of abundance. Ignore the clock and to-do list as often as possible. Steal a few precious moments of warmth to make memories before Orion’s long, chilly stay begins again.


All-Star Asters That Brighten Autumn

Aster Symphyotrichum Purple Dome

Aster Symphyotrichum Purple Dome

By Debra Knapke

Autumn is the time of golden, scarlet, and maroon leaves and shortened days. It is the time for picking apples and harvesting vegetables. We watch our gardens slowly decline, and yet there is one perennial that says “Wait, my time is now!” Enter the asters, the late summer to fall-blooming plants so loved by bees and butterflies.

We often overlook the flowers of autumn as we fill out our gardens with spring and summer blooms. Many of us buy plants in April, May and June when the spring and summer flowering plants proudly show their colors.   But we overlook the asters which are just emerging: green leaves and no flowers.

Asters are not difficult to grow. Here are a few cultivation and maintenance guidelines:

  • Asters prefer full sun, 6+ hours of light; most tolerate part sun, four to five hours of light.
  • Most asters are drought-tolerant if you keep the soil moist during the first year in the garden.
  • Asters love compost, but excessive fertilization will cause them to grow quickly and ungainly; an aster lying on the ground is not attractive!
  • The taller asters should be cut back by 1/3 in early to mid-June to promote stronger stems and to avoid the need for staking.
  • Asters are best divided in the spring.

It’s not too late to add these late bloomers to your garden, but don’t wait too long. After late August, asters may not have enough time to grow their roots into the soil and acclimate to your garden before winter arrives. If you miss the planting window this year, buy the green, leafy aster next spring.

Here are some species that are native to most of the Midwest. Many of the cultivars listed have been selected for their compact habits and richly colored flowers.

Aster Symphyotrichum Purple Dome

Aster Symphyotrichum Purple Dome

  • Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) – has aromatic foliage; height 18-36”, width 12-18”; blooms Sept. to Oct.; sky blue to lavender-blue flowers;   Look for: ‘October Skies’ (compact: ht. 18”); ‘Raydon’s Favorite’
  • Blue wood aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) – height 2-4’, width 2-3’; performs best in part sun, but tolerates sun to shady conditions, blooms Aug. to Sept.; small light blue flowers
  • Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) – height 1-2’, width 12-18”; blooms Aug. to Oct.; white to light pink flowers; look for ‘Pink Cloud’ ‘Snow Flurry’: both are more compact selections
  • New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) – height 3-6’, width 2-3’; blooms Sept. to October; light lavender or pink to deep purple or pink flowers; if the soils dries out, this species will lose the lower leaves on their stems; look for: ‘Purple Dome’ (compact: 24-30” tall) ‘Vibrant Dome’ (compact: 18-24” tall)   ‘September Ruby’
  • Smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) – height 2-4’, width 18-24”; blooms Sept. to Oct.; striking blue-violet flowers; look for: ‘Bluebird’
  • White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) – the exception: prefers part sun to full shade; height 12”, width 18-24”; bloom Aug. to Sept.; white flowers; ‘Eastern Star’ is a more compact selection

Side Note:  The Aster Name

Not only do our native asters suffer because they lack early flowers, but they have been separated into new genera with difficult names. One of my horticulturist friends calls it the “aster disaster”. If a garden center has arranged the perennials by their botanical names, the asters will be spread across several locations on the nursery shelves. Fortunately, in most garden centers, asters still hold a place at the beginning of the alphabet instead of being scattered throughout the benches. For those who are interested the new botanical names are listed with the common names.

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