As many of our favorite garden plants start to fade, we are on a continual quest to find fresh color to last until frost.
The traditional favorite has been chrysanthemums, with their broad color palette and widespread availability at garden centers and big box stores. But after the first frost, the show is over, and the question is whether to try to get them to survive over winter or just cast them into the compost bin like an annual bedding plant. It is for this reason many people are seeking alternatives to the traditional mum, especially when seeking a permanent resident for garden beds.
A more dependable choice are plants in the aster family (Aster spp.). While native asters can become a bit floppy, many hybrids have been bred to be more stalwart members of the garden. Alpine aster (Aster alpinus) is much shorter than its native cousin and produces more flowers borne on denser foliage. Their cheery, daisy-like flowers range in colors from traditional blue to new whites, pinks and purples.
Most importantly, Alpine asters are reliably hardy to zone 4 and survive our winters year after year. They require little care through the spring and summer but do benefit from being pinched back during the growing season. This promotes an attractive mounded shape and delays flowering until fall, when we need it the most.
Another native, goldenrod (Solidago spp.), shows off plumes of bright yellow while forming drifts in fields and setting a soothing foreground for fall colors. This former thug of the garden had a nasty habit of appearing in spots where it was not wanted, and its 6-foot stems drooped, so many gardeners ripped out the plant years ago.
Fortunately, the new hybrids have corrected these undesirable traits. Many new goldenrods, such as Fireworks, have a more manageable, 3-foot-tall height, and spread at a much slower pace. Its native pedigree means that it is rarely bothered by pests, tolerates our soils and seasons well, and is rarely eaten even by deer. Additionally, the heavy pollen is a great source of food for our pollinators, and does not aggravate allergies, for which it has been mistakenly blamed.
It is possible to have color in the garden with little effort and expense. With asters and goldenrods, you can add excitement to the garden and save chrysanthemums for the pots on the front porch.
Jim Stendler is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.