Rediscovering asters

Sometimes you think you know a plant only to find there’s far more to it than you realised. Asters – commonly known as Michaelmas Daisies – are such a plant.

To many gardeners they are those mauve daisy-like things that flower in autumn and grew in their parents’ garden. They have a slightly old-fashioned image and are generally seen as a filler in the border rather than a star.

Yet, the colour range is vast from cool white through to claret and it’s possible to have them in flower from early September to almost Christmas.

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There’s far more to asters than mauve

I was reminded quite how interesting asters can be at the Malvern Autumn Show where a display by Old Court Nurseries, holders of the National Collection, won gold.

It’s been some years since I visited Old Court and its display beds in The Picton Garden and I’d forgotten what a spectacle a mass planting of asters makes.

The display had a lightness and grace that is rarely associated with other autumn bloomers, such as rudbeckia, helenium or helianthus, and was something different to the usual yellows and oranges so often associated with the season.

Deciding it was time to rediscover asters, I attended at talk by Helen Picton hosted by Allomorphic in Stroud.

From the outset, it was clear there’s more to asters than mere mauve. A bucket of flowers, cut that day from the nursery, had white, pale pink, deep purple and some with a hint of red.

What’s in a name

And if the sudden realisation of the choice available wasn’t confusing enough, there’s the name. Work by botanists has led to many being reclassified and they are no longer called asters; nearly all the North American species are now Symphyotrichum or Eurybia.

Helen, who has a degree in botany, skipped through the explanation with ease but, perhaps realising that the switch is going to take some time among their customers, the nursery is still using the term aster as well as the new name for its plants.

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Flowers cut from the nursery showed the range of asters

She is the third generation of the Picton family to run the Colwall nursery, which was founded more than 100 years ago by Ernest Ballard, one of the first people to specialise in Asters.

The National Collection was started by her parents, Paul and Meriel, with many varieties owing their survival to two Bristol enthusiasts who collected them; their plants joined those at Old Court in the 1980s and today the collection has more than 400 varieties.

Growing asters

Asters do have a reputation for being prone to mildew that can turn their leaves an unattractive grey.

We were told that the novi-belgii group are the most susceptible, not least because they are shallow-rooted and therefore dry out quickly during the summer.

Helen suggested a garlic foliar spray was one method of treatment – though it is essential to cover all the foliage – and division every three years would help to keep plants vigorous.

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Helen is the third generation to run Old Court Nurseries

Varieties with smooth leaves were more likely to get mildew than those with rough leaves, she added.

The majority need open, sunny positions to flower well, although a few are tolerant of shade.

Other cultivation tips included hiding the “naked bottoms” of the New England asters.

“They are definitely back of the border plants. Give them a nice skirt of something more interesting.”

What to choose

If you’re looking for something that will be smothered in flowers, the compact ‘Gulliver’ is a good choice. It grows to around 45cm and has mauve blooms.

Another small aster is ‘Purple Dome’, which again gets to around 45cm high, and has large purple flowers.

“It needs as much sun as you can give it,” advised Helen.

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The Picton Garden displays the National Collection

For arching flower sprays, Helen recommended the species asters, such as ‘Photograph’, which has smaller, pale blue flowers

“It is more relaxed in habit and mixes better with other perennials.”

‘King George’ had a rapid name change after it was introduced as Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914 and is now a popular variety. Its large purple flowers are loved by hoverflies and butterflies. Upright growing, it is mildew-free but needs good winter drainage.

One of the blowsiest is ‘Fellowship’, which has masses of pale pink double flowers. It grows to around 100cm and is one of the more mildew-resistant of the New York asters.

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‘Fellowship’ produces a mass of double flowers

And, if you want something to tumble over a retaining wall, ‘Snow Flurry’, the only prostrate aster, might be the answer. It has long, horizontal flowering stems that are covered in tiny white flowers.

The Picton Garden and the National Collection of autumn flowering Asters and related genera is open until mid-October. For details and more information on Old Court Nurseries and growing asters see here

The next in the Allomorphic series of lectures is on November 11 when nurseryman Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers will be talking about his favourite plants. More details here

Plant-hunting at the Malvern Autumn Show

malvern autumn show

The nursery displays at the Malvern Autumn Show are always the first place I head. Mail order is all very well but nothing beats being able to examine plants and talk to the people who’ve grown them before you buy. And at Malvern there was no shortage of tempting exhibits.

The judges’ favourite was Hampshire Carnivorous Plants’ display of insect-eating plants (pictured above). I confess to finding them somewhat sinister but the colours were stunning and the exhibit richly deserved its Best in Show award – the third at Malvern for grower Matt Soper and number 11 in total.

Elsewhere, Stella Exley, of Hare Spring Cottage Plants, won her first gold with only her third RHS show exhibit; she got silver at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival and Tatton Park earlier this year.

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There was lots of good detail on Hare Spring Cottage Plant’s stand

I loved the sense of timelessness she had created. It felt like the corner of a real garden that the owner had just stepped out of for a moment.

The sense of a garden was also apparent on Green Jjam’s stand. This Cotswold-based nursery, which specialises in penstemon, showed how they could be worked through a border with things such as Verbena bonariensis, helianthus and grasses to create a soft, cottage garden-like effect.

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Green Jjam Nurseries’ stand showed how to mix penstemon with other plants

And there were plenty of individual plants that caught my eye at the Malvern Autumn Show. Here are just a few I spotted.

Rethinking rudbeckias

I’ve never been too sure about rudbeckia, though my judgement is possibly clouded thanks to my struggles to grow them. It’s the combination of yellow and brown that puts me off so a new variety on Hayloft Plants’ stand really appealed.

Rudbeckia ‘Sophia Yellow’ has an orange central cone instead of the usual dark brown and two-tone petals of yolk and pale yellow, giving a real blast of sunshine colour to a late border.

Malvern autumn show
Rudbeckia ‘Sophia Yellow’

It grows to about 40cm high and needs more sun than the traditional rudbeckia – so much so that Hayloft are promoting them as ‘Sunbeckia’.

“If you put it in the same category as ‘Goldsturm’, it’s going to struggle,” explained Lark Hanham, of Hayloft.

The Dutch breeders regard it as fully hardy but, until it’s been thoroughly tested in gardens, Lark is advising that it’s hardy to minus seven.

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Rudbeckia ‘Amber Glow’

For those who like the familiar brown and yellow combination, ‘Amber Glow’ is a winner. It has a dark brown centre but the yellow petals have striking red-brown markings.

A cool contrast is a Senecio candicans ‘Angel Wings’. This is so new on the nursery they still have no idea what colour the flowers will be or even what shape. As it’s not hardy, it’s being suggested as a houseplant or as part of a summer border.

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The new senecio has lovely felty leaves

New versions of old favourites

I love heucheras: the foliage is good year-round; they have lovely, delicate wands of flowers; the slugs and snails leave them alone. Malvern always has several specialist nurseries, making it easy to compare different varieties.

On Plantagogo’s stand this year, a new heucherella – a cross between a heuchera and a tiarella – was making an impact.

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‘Art Nouveau’ will eventually make a sizeable clump

‘Art Nouveau’ is a beefy plant that will eventually get 2-3ft across with large green leaves that have a striking dark marking.

“It will have leaves as big as your hand and lovely white flowers,” said Vicky Fox, who runs the nursery with her husband, Richard.

And if it’s brown hues you want, Heuchera ‘Mega Caramel’ has tints of orange, peach and pink in its foliage.

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‘Mega Caramel’ has beautifully shaded foliage

The display by specialist aster growers Old Court Nurseries was stunning and a worthy gold medal winner.

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The gold medal-winning display by Old Court Nurseries

Among the familiar pink, white and mauve blooms was a new variety, ‘Jessica Jones’, a seedling from ‘Ochtendgloren’ but slightly taller and with larger flowers.

Growing to about 4ft-high, it has dark pink buds that open to paler flowers giving a lovely two-tone effect on the plant.

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‘Jessica Jones’

“It’s a pretty good size, robust and very free flowering,” said Helen Picton from the Colwall-based nursery.

Don’t forget the scent

Another pretty pink bloom that was getting admiring glances was Clematis ‘Manon’ making its Malvern Autumn Show debut on Floyds Climbers and Clematis’ stand.

It has almost pearlescent lavender-pink flowers, which appear from May to September, grows up to 5ft, making it idea for a container, and is best in semi-shade for the best colour.

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Clematis ‘Manon’

“It is also good for growing up a low-growing shrub,” said Marcel Floyd.

His tip for growing clematis in a container is to give them two gallons of water once a week and let them dry out, rather than watering daily.

“They don’t like wet feet,” he explained.

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They may be tiny but these flowers have a powerful scent

But it was a pink jasmine that followed me home from his exhibit. Trachelospermum asiaticum ‘Pink Showers’ is an evergreen that flowers from June to September, is drought and salt-tolerant, and deer-proof. It is also suited to any aspect except north-facing.

Best of all, it has that wonderful jasmine fragrance.

Also beautifully scented was the Actea simplex ‘Brunette’ on Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants.

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Actea has a wonderful scent

The creamy wand of flowers is held above deep burgundy-brown leaves. It will grow to around 4ft in height, likes humus-rich soil and needs sunshine to keep good foliage colour.

“It will gradually clump up and can be split after four or five years,” said Rob Hardy.

For those who love honeysuckle but don’t have room for what can be a vigorous climber, one of Newent Plant Centre’s most popular plants could be the answer.

Lonicera periclymenum ‘Honeybush’ doesn’t climb but forms a 3ft by 3ft bush, covered in deep pink and golden blooms.

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A bushy honeysuckle is good for the front of beds or pots

“It still has that fantastic, intense scent,” said Mark Moir of the nursery, which is now based near Ledbury.

The honeysuckle is deciduous, will flower from July to October and can be grown in pots or in a semi-shaded position in the garden.

“If you want to tidy it up, you can prune it in the spring.”

And among the edibles

Mint is rarely thought of as a thing of beauty yet a new variety on Hooksgreen Herbs’ display was stunning.

Variegated grapefruit mint, which was discovered on the nursery, has pale mauve flowers above green and white foliage, which has a definite hint of citrus.

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Variegated grapefruit mint

“At this time of year it goes pink and has good autumn colour,” said Malcolm Dickson.

Finally, I love looking at the veg displays at the Malvern Autumn Show – if only to marvel at their absolute perfection. There’s also usually something a bit different, such as the Karella on W. Robinson & Son’s stand.

Sue Robinson described it as a bitter gourd from India that is used as the base for curries.

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Karella is used in curries

“It’s a bit of an acquired taste.”

And if you don’t like the flavour, you could always use this climber as her grandfather used to: as living greenhouse shading in the firm’s glasshouses.

Read my reflections on the Malvern Autumn Show and its future shape here

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Malvern Autumn Show 2016

The Malvern Autumn Show has always marked a turning point in the gardening year for me. It’s a time to look back at the season that’s drawing to a close and somewhere to start planning for next year.

There’s the chance to stock up on plants, seeds and bulbs from some of the country’s leading nurseries, pick up tips from experts and marvel at displays of fruit and veg.

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There will be lots of veg on show

And if monster carrots weren’t enough of a spectacle, this year Strictly Come Dancing fans will get the chance to see Anton du Beke as he dances in the Vintage Village.

I’ve been taking a look at what’s on offer at The Three Counties Showground this weekend.

Time to plug those gaps

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I’m looking for some autumn inspiration

For me, the very best garden shows have the chance to buy plants and talk to the people who have grown them. Malvern has more than 40 different nursery exhibits in its RHS Flower Show, covering everything from perennials and climbers to bulbs and roses.

Like many, I’ve got some gaps in my borders and plants I’ve spotted during the summer that I want to try growing. So, I will be heading for the nursery displays with my shopping list.

My first port of call will be Green Jjam Nurseries, which specialises in penstemon. I’m determined to improve my late summer colour and penstemon are an easy way to do that and, unlike echinacea or helenium, seem to be ignored by slugs.

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There should be plenty of asters on show

Hayloft Plants will also be displaying autumn-flowering perennials, Old Court Nurseries will have asters and there are several nurseries with heucheras that give important year-round colour.

I may also be tempted by dahlias from Pheasant Acre Plants, who had a stunning display at this year’s Hampton Court flower show.

Vegging out

malvern autumn show

Vegetables play a big part at the Malvern Show – in size as well as numbers.

The UK National Giant Vegetables Championship has been held at the show since 2013 with classes that include the heaviest pumpkin and longest beetroot.

This year, there are new categories for the heaviest bell pepper and red cabbage.

The show saw three world record-breaking entries last year and there are hundreds of entries for this season’s contest.

Amateur growers will also be vying for prizes in the Harvest Pavilion with Grow to Show, the Vegetable Trug National Championships and the National Vegetable Society’s Midland Branch Championships.

Floral fiesta

Having a cut flower patch is becoming increasingly popular in gardens I visit and the Malvern Autumn Show will again be putting the spotlight on British cut flowers.

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Jonathan Moseley

Floral designer Jonathan Moseley will be working with some of the country’s leading growers to promote ‘grown not flown’ flowers in the ‘Floral Fiesta’.

There will be demonstrations, talks and hands-on workshops, showing visitors how to make the most of seasonal blooms.

“Autumn is the most magical time of year and for me as a floral designer there is a wealth of rich colours and stimulating textures to work with,” said Jonathan, who was the floral judge on BBC2’s Great Allotment Challenge.

“Visitors can enjoy a riot of sensational colours from bold dahlias in rich reds, burgundies and tangerines to vivacious sunflowers, nostalgic chrysanthemums with that scent so evocative of autumn, all married with some unusual choice blooms from my own Derbyshire garden.”

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Expect to see squash and gourds used in floral arrangements

Several members of the British flower co-operative Flowers from the Farm will be there, including Great British Florist and Wild Bunch.

Dahlias take centre stage

The flower market of Mexico City is the inspiration behind a dazzling display of dahlias at this year’s Malvern Autumn Show.

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Jon is promising a dazzling display

Leading horticulturalist Jon Wheatley is decorating the theatre stage with hundreds of blooms, including cut flowers from the National Collection in Cornwall, and varieties that he has raised himself at his nursery in Chew Magna.

Dahlias are the national flower of Mexico and Jon visited Mexico City earlier this year.

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Cut flowers from the National Collection will be used

“I have never seen so much colour in my life,” he says. “I’m going to try to encompass a little bit of Mexico City’s flower market in it.”

He will be unveiling a new single white called ‘Stroma’ at the show, as well as using species dahlias, dwarf bedders and garden dahlias.

“We’re celebrating the dahlia’s diversity,” he explains.

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‘Stroma’ will be unveiled at the show

Flowers will be arranged in bands of colour with accent plants such as miscanthus, box, artemesia, and banana.

“It’s not just going to be dahlias and will demonstrate how you can grow plants with them.”

Jon, who has won many RHS gold medals for displays of dahlias and chrysanthemums, will be on hand to answer queries throughout the show and is also giving a number of talks.

Pick up some tips

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Mark Diacono will be hosting cookery talks

Expert growers will be offering tips and advice in a series of talks at the Malvern Autumn Show.

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Tom Kerridge

Gardeners’ World presenter Carol Klein, expert veg growers and members of the RHS’ tender ornamental plant committee will be offering help on everything from container gardening to carnivorous plants.

There will also be ideas on how to use your homegrown produce with BBC TV chef Tom Kerridge and Mark Diacono from Otter Farm.

They will be appearing in the Cookery Theatre along with Mark Stinchcombe, winner of MasterChef The Professionals.

The Malvern Autumn Show is on Saturday and Sunday September 24 and 25 from 9am to 6pm.

Tickets are available on the door. More information and details of talks at here

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