Mums and asters: good companions for fall

Not a mum, but a truly worthy plant I found on the half off table a few years ago at TLC Nursery, Helianthus salicifolius ‘Table Mountain’

Yes, I know we’ve had a terrible summer, and it’s still hot. Even if you haven’t completely thrown in the trowel, it’s probably now buried somewhere in the garden of your frustration. In solidarity, I’ve been leaving my garden bucket outside every night to lure the rain.

And, yes, I started off with a perennial sunflower in the first photo, but I wanted you to see something bright and beautiful right off. Going to the fall nursery sales and picking up prairie flowers is a great way to fill in spots where lesser plants have died.

One of my many asters taken last fall. Can’t remember the cultivar.

Whether rain dances, lures or prayers to the Almighty worked, we got some rain. So, it’s now time to think about your fall garden. If you run to the local nursery and buy a few true perennial mums and asters, you’ll get bloom for fall, and much, much more next year.

Mums are a complicated group, and their names frequently change. Most are still listed in nursery catalogs as chrysanthemums, but others are now known under their newest botanical classification, Dendranthema. Unless you simply want color filler (and after this summer who doesn’t), don’t waste your time on D. X Grandiflorum, button mums and their pals.

Symphyotrichum laevis 'Bluebird
Symphyotrichum laevis ‘Bluebird

Instead, plant hardy garden mums and asters which return stronger every year. Try Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Bluebird,’ an aster with a complicated botanical name change, Dendranthema‘ Sheffield Pink, or C. pacificum, syn. Ajania pacifica which has leaves etched in silver and small, gold blooms.’ I grow all of these, and they never disappoint even in a terrible year.

Pacifica mum taken in October last year. It doesn’t bloom until November here, but look upon that foliage.

I confess I fell in love with both of these mums after reading about them in print in Fine Gardening magazine. The article is also online. Since then, I’ve tried to track down all of the varieties Bobbie Schwartz listed. The search hasn’t ended, but I’ve found some. I’m still on the hunt for C. x Rubellum ‘Will’s Wonderful.’ Heronswood has it, but I’m going to check locally before I have it shipped across the country. I noticed Plant Delights also has C. ‘Snow Dome’, a cross between pacifica mums and garden ones. Interesting.

‘Sheffield Pink’ mum photographed in my garden in last October.

Some of you will comment and tell me your button mums come back too. In the south, for many that’s true, but find a place in your garden for the true perennials. Combine these with prairie-happy natives and their kith and kin for a splendid fall show.

In the South this year, we desperately need plants for fall known as our “second spring.” In many gardens, plants just gave up and died due to heat stress and lack of water. So, in addition to mums, choose hardy natives and cultivars which can stand up to our brutal heat and cold. While looking for the mums and asters, ask about tough natives or cultivars created from these. With good drainage, Echinacea pallida, Helianthus angustifolius (narrow leaf sunflower), grasses, and Solidago spp., goldenrod, perform well in our harsh climate.

Solidago, goldenrod

Also, while I’m thinking about it, go ahead and deadhead the roses and other perennials. This gives them a chance to bloom again in September. Give them their last haircut.

Also, right now, plant green beans and summer squash if earlier crops failed. Start thinking about winter veggies too. Oklahoma State University has great tips for fall vegetable gardens. We may not get any tomatoes, but that doesn’t mean your garden is dead. With the rain we have a reprieve.

Fall is a time for second chances. I’m in, are you?