Thursday, September 17, 2015

I May Miss the Harvest

 “I may miss the harvest but I won't miss the feast - And it looks like you're gonna have to see me again - And it looks like you're gonna have to see me again - And it looks like you're gonna have to see me again - Illinois, Illinois, Illinois, Illinois.” 

The song written by Illinois’ own Dan Fogelberg sparks memories of cool autumn nights, bonfires and harvests. 

Is it me or did this autumn sneak up on us right when we thought we were still having a wild wonderful summer?

At first I saw an occasional red maple leaf or falling walnut and chalked it up to a seasonal fluke.  The soybean field by the house was getting a little gold around the edges but that must be from the sun hitting it more than the rest.  And then WHAM:  Fall rolled over the fields, trees and flowers like a wildfire out of control.

Summer flowers struggling to hang in there look more like the fluke than the mums for sale at every store in the big towns.  It’s no wonder we associate orange and gold with fall; it’s the colors of nature.

One of my favorite fall plants is the perennial aster.  I have a couple of hybrid asters in shocking pink and glowing purple.  My gardens are full of naturalized dark lavender asters.  The woods and roadsides have the beautiful wildflower aster typically called Smooth Aster or “Aster laevis”.

There are other aster varieties in wildflower patches all across Illinois.  Check out the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers” book for help in identifying these beauties.  And don’t feel bad if you can’t distinguish between varieties, the book says, “The many small-flowered asters found in our range are often difficult to distinguish from one another…” We’re in good company.

I sometimes struggle knowing the benefits or purpose of some plants and insects but the aster flaunts its purpose upon first bloom.  It’s a pollinator magnet and butterflies will cover the blooms until they seek winter habitat.

I realize it’s difficult for the gardener who must have order and symmetry to incorporate asters in their gardens.  Asters are wild and crazy looking until September.  They’re tall and tend to spread out as much as you allow.  Some gardeners may even mistake them for weeds and pull before giving them a chance to bloom.

First you need to know what the entire plant looks like or you’ll surely tag it as a weed.  The leaves are long, thin, soft and dull emerald green.  Hybrid asters will be about 24 inches tall.  Naturalized aster wildflowers may be over 40 inches.  I find it best to prune them when they reach about twelve inches back down to six.  Don’t prune too late in the season or they won’t produce flowers.

Typically the stems are sturdy and woody.  The flowers look like tiny daisies.  Most have a yellow central disk and soft dainty petals (often called rays) of white, soft lavender or pink and darker or brighter shades of the same.

Hybrid asters hold up well in a vase but the wildflower petals may curl.  They are numerous enough it’s always worth a try to cut some for a beautiful fall bouquet.

All but the hybrids self seed.  Not in an ugly kill all the neighboring plants kind of way and they can be thinned out where you don’t want them.  I would advise planting where they can spread out and enjoy the sun and air and not shade shorter plants.

Plant asters in full sun to light shade.  In deeper shade they reach for more light and flop in that direction.  They will tolerate most any kind of soil.  The wildflower varieties will state exactly where they are best suited.  Some even include marshlands.  Besides what nature provides, they don’t need any extra water once established.

Now excuse me while I go all autumn on you with a little Fogelberg. “I may miss the harvest but I won’t miss the feast” – the feast of the beauty of an Illinois fall.

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