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All About Asters for the Fall by Jo Busha, Author

photo of a purple flower Purple Dome Aster

The typical image of a garden in fall abounds in reds (helenium), oranges (asclepias), and golds (Black-Eyed Susan). But there are plants for fall that lean toward the cooler side of the spectrum. Among the most common are asters.

Asters of one kind or another are native to every part of North America, as well as many other parts of the world. However, recent genetic studies have shown that the North American “asters” don’t belong in the genus – which is composed of plants from Asia – and they have been re-classified as either Symphyotrichum or Eurybia. Despite this change of formal name, they will no doubt remain asters in common parlance.

photo of aster flowers
Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

The genus Symphyotrichum includes New England asters (the species name is novae-angliae) and New York asters (novi-belgii.) New York asters are also known – especially in Great Britain – as Michaelmas daisies. “Michaelmas” refers to the feast of St. Michael which falls in late September. Both of these asters are wild in my part of the country but are also available as nursery plants.

photo of new england aster flower
New England Aster

I have a large specimen of a New England aster that draws attention to itself because of its size (over 4 feet) and bright purple color. And, like others in this family, it provides a hearty supply of pollen that draws the bees especially at this time of the year when fewer flowers are available. As I weeded around the plant last week it was abuzz with hard-working bees.

In addition to the straight species, I also grow the popular cultivar, Purple Dome (see picture at the top of the post). Because the lower stems do tend to get diseased before the season is over, I took the advice of a garden lecturer I once heard and grow blue gentians in front of them to distract from the blackened stems. Purple Dome is much shorter than the species and expands easily into sizeable clumps.  They get divided every other year.

In another part of the garden I have a patch of blue asters. Like Purple Dome, these low-growing cheerful flowers have formed a nice clump and I can divide them to get additional plants every few years. Unfortunately, I have lost the information about them, so I don’t know their name. I think they may be a cultivar of Symphyotrichum novae-belgii, or New York aster.

I live on a back road in rural New England where a multitude of wildflowers bloom in Mother Nature’s garden. Sometimes she is generous and shares some of her treasures. Two kinds of wild aster have popped up in my garden. By moving them into clumps I can make them an attractive part of a cultivated garden. There is a light blue one and a white one. I think they are Symphyotrichum cordifolium and Eurybia divaracata.

photo os wild white aster flowers
Eurybia divaracata
photo of wild purple aster flowers
Symphyotrichum cordifolium

I have found that most asters are easy to grow, and there are so many different kinds that most gardeners will be able to find at least one that suits their site. I recommend them.

Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden, a collection of essays written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and observations of the natural world. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. It will appeal to gardeners, readers seeking a strong sense of place, and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years, has played a huge role in her life. While not a how-to book, gardeners may find the essays instructive. Book lovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.

a book cover with a photo of a lush, Vermont garden
Jo Busha’s Book of Essays about life, gardening and the natural world
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Self-Editing: Removing the Excessive, the Repetitive, the Overblown–in the Garden! by Jo Busha

photo of a flower garden planted around a tree trunck
Jo Busha’s garden
Trimming along the pathway

It is easy to glance past the problems developing in the garden when flowers are blooming at the height of summer. Swathes of daylilies and mounds of lady’s mantle, spires of spike speedwell and clumps of spiderwort assure the tired gardener that the bursts of color mean that all is well. As summer progresses, and plants mature, the excitement of the spring planting season wanes a bit. Hot and humid weather makes being out in the sun less pleasurable and the gardener can rightfully judge that a rest from horticulture is warranted.

Then, on a leisurely stroll along the garden’s path, in the cool of the evening, a certain disquiet develops. The gardener notices that the beds no longer look crisp, that some plants have been obscured by inconsiderate neighbors. Oh, yes, the gardener remembers now. It is mid-summer—time to edit the garden beds. Like editing a document, garden editing involves removing the excessive, the repetitive, the overblown, and the ‘purple prose.’ Tweaking is in order: a little weeding, some judicious pruning, a spate of deadheading and even cutting down whole plants that have – in that English term I love – “gone over.”

When I was a new gardener I believed that during each bout of gardening I should pick a bed and completely clean it up: weed out every square inch, eliminate every self-sown plant that had wandered in, remove every brown leaf, trim every clump of expanding perennials. It was exhausting and took so long I often couldn’t complete the bed in one session. But I have become less obsessive about being in control of every garden bed. I tolerate more of the self-sown interlopers, though they cannot be guaranteed a welcome. I can overlook some weeds, especially small varieties that don’t shout, “I am a weed!” I can let some deadheads stand if the seed heads are attractive when dry. Oriental Poppies, Astilbe, Sedum Autumn Joy are some that get left, at least for a while.

I recently found myself editing two beds in one afternoon. The larger of the two is a bed I call the Victorian Bed. (Think jewel tones, Persian carpets, red flocked wallpaper.) It was clearly overgrown and less attractive than it might be. Hellebore bracts that still looked good a month after the flowers were gone had now turned brown and flopped onto nearby plants. The dianthus needed shearing to remove the browned flowers. Daylilies begged to be deadheaded. Spent forget-me-nots I had missed on my last clean-up through this bed, were overdue for their trip to the compost pile. Flopping white Lychnis had to go, as well.

Since the paths in my garden are grass, the edges tend to get overgrown. I trimmed the grass edges with shears. It does not give that crisp, sharp edge that gardeners love, but is a quick substitute to identify the divide between bed and path. I will come back and cut the edges properly another day. Were there still weeds left when I finished? Oh, yes. And many other flaws, as well. But the bed looked less neglected, more intentional. With the edge better defined, I was confident that the mower (my husband) would be able to avoid chopping plants that had been disguised in the general overgrowth.

By then the afternoon had grown hot. I moved my editing project to the shade of the Jungle Bed. In this little bed, I use mostly hardy perennials to create a lush, jungle-like atmosphere. Potted plants and houseplants that summer outside are also included.

Not only was it lush, it was a bit of a mush. The little Laughing Buddha statue (a souvenir of a visit with my sister in Florida) was lost under an overhanging Ligularia “Othello.” Ostrich ferns were obscuring the shredded umbrella plant (Syneilesis aconitifolia.) Stems of Tabularis astilboides had flopped and now leaned heavily on a small potted peace lily and a Christmas fern. I liberated Buddha and opened up space around the shredded umbrella (and discovered it had sent up several new shoots this year.) The peace lily got the attention she deserved – especially this summer, a little more space for her and some gardening-peace so welcome for me!

a book cover with a photo of a lush, Vermont garden
Jo Busha’s Book of Essays about life, gardening and the natural world

Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden, a collection of essays written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and observations of the natural world by author. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. It will appeal to gardeners, readers seeking a strong sense of place, and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years, has played a huge role in her life. While not a how-to book, gardeners may find the essays instructive. Booklovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.

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Adventures with Annuals by Jo Busha, Author

photo of flowers in pots on deck

You might expect that the author of a book of gardening essays (Time and the Garden) is an avid gardener. You’d be right! This post is about my annual journey with my annuals.

I have a collection of planted containers around the perimeter of my deck. They act as a visible barrier, needed because we removed the railing when we realized (the first winter of its life) that shoveling snow off the deck is nearly impossible with a railing in the way. Over the years, I have tried out many kinds of plantings.

My husband objected when plants got so tall that they obscured the view. And I eliminated plants that might look nice for a while but tend not to last through the whole summer. Among that group are China asters and painted tongue, both colorful flowers I really liked but the spent plants had to be dug out of the containers and replaced by about mid-July.

For some years now, the conventional wisdom concerning the best way to plant a container for maximum impact is the “thriller, filler, spiller” triad. The thriller,  a tall plant with a dramatic shape, the filler being just as the name implies a plant – or sometimes two or three – with a bushy or bulky shape, and the spiller, a trailing plant or vine to spill over the edge of the container and is supposed to “soften the edges” of the container. This formula is often described as “well-rounded” and “professional” and even “foolproof.”

Eventually I grew tired of this formula. Containers planted this way began to seem overdone, even obese. I started to shift the containers to a more lighthearted presentation. Generally, this means smaller containers, often planted with just one or two kinds of plants.

photo of a pot planted simply with one type of flower
A more lighthearted presentation has become my way.

These can be grouped in different configurations to show each pot to its best advantage through the summer season. I have tried several color combinations but generally have settled on hot colors for their cheerfulness and ease of growing: geraniums, marigolds, coleus, and nasturtiums.

One year I tried out a black and white theme. It seemed rather contrived, so I haven’t repeated it.

 

photo of black and white flowers in a pot
I planted black and white flowers one year. It was worth a try.

Some of this year’s pots have turned the tables, providing me surprises. I suppose it was the re-cycled potting soil that produced the large cucurbit. It must be the offspring of a hybrid squash, producing a plant and some fruit not quite like either of its parents. It provides a lush container planting that I would not have thought of myself.

photo of  a squash hybrid in a pot
This beauty gave a surprise appearance.

This year I am experimenting with a whole bed of annuals at the south-facing end of the potting shed. For many years this spot served as the home of the truckload of pine mulch I invested in each spring. I knew that the pretty potting shed deserved a more attractive surround, but just couldn’t make up my mind about what sort of planting I wanted in this prime location. And it was handy having the mulch there.

Photo of Flower bed at end of potting shed
I planted my own annuals this year.

This winter I came up with the scheme of making a fully packed bed of colorful annuals. Maybe that would help settle the question. I ordered seeds and started them in the cellar under gro-lights. As spring approached, I filled two cold frames with masses of seedlings.

 

I dug up the area, mixing the remaining, years-old, nearly-composted mulch with the rich black soil below. Finally, it was warm enough to plant them out in the prepared bed.

To my chagrin the masses of seedlings did not actually fill the bed as I had imagined.

A few days after the plants were settled in their new home a mama woodchuck found them and decided that the viscaria was a banquet just for her. I put up a temporary fence.

Eventually mama and her babies apparently moved on (we hadn’t seen her in a week) and I took down the fence.

Of course, that was a mistake – the slowly recovering viscaria were re-discovered and devoured, leaving a large bare spot in the center of the bed. The marigolds and calendula, the poppies and nicotiana have done well and are blooming. The zinnias have suffered badly from Japanese beetles and are way behind.

photo of flower bed with grown flowers

I think the only thing this experiment has proved is that a bed of annuals probably isn’t the solution to my design dilemma for the end of the potting shed. Next year, the mulch may be back.

 

NOTE: Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden, a collection of essays written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and observations of the natural world. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. It will appeal to gardeners, readers seeking a strong sense of place, and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years, has played a huge role in her life. While not a how-to book, gardeners may find the essays instructive. Booklovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.

a book cover with a photo of a lush, Vermont garden
Jo Busha’s Book of Essays about life, gardening and the natural world

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Where Wild Onions and Hope Blossom Together by Jo Busha

photo of wild onions called ramps
Homemade Ramp and Potato Soup

Little spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) were just starting to bloom as I went up the trail into our woods to pick a supper’s worth of ramps. These wild onions, Allium tricoccum, which are native to Eastern US, are the first wild food of the year to find a place on my table. Ramps are called by many names, including wild onion and wild garlic. They are pungent and contain qualities of both.

Where the trail turns to the right and levels out, the ramps come into view, at first small clumps of six or eight plants, then in colonies of hundreds. I chose a comfy seat on a moss-covered log in the soft April sunlight. I pulled out the asparagus knife (also called a dandelion digger) and dug up robust looking plants.

Ramps grow in a variety of settings, though they tend to proliferate in damp spots. I have read advice about picking them that states they are shallow-rooted. That may be the case when they grow in sandy stream banks, but here in a woodland in rocky New England, I have to dig deep to extricate the whole bulb from the tangle of maple roots and buried rocks. It is rare that I get the bulbs out intact. Soon, though, I have harvested enough for the ramp and potato soup I am planning for supper (recipe below). I will come back in a few days to pick more for mushroom lo mein.

The name “ramp” is said to derive from an Old English word “ramson,” a common name of the European bear garlic (Allium ursinum). As often is the case, English settlers applied the common name of a familiar plant from home to a similar plant they found in the new world. Ramps were also known to and used by the native people of Vermont. That connection is still visible in the name of the state’s third-largest river, the Winooski. “Winooski” is an Abenaki word meaning “place of the wild onions.”

Using ramps to cook a simple soup that might have also been made by the farm family that lived on this land several generations ago is very life-affirming for me. It is the taste of early spring when new growth is just beginning and hope blossoms.

Here’s the recipe I use for the ramp and potato soup:

Ramp Soup

Ingredients

  • 6 medium potatoes
  • 1 cup cooked ham, diced (optional)
  • 3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 to 2 cups fresh ramps

Directions

  1. Peel and dice the potatoes. Dice the bulbs and stems of the ramps and slice about 3 inches of the leaves into ribbons.
  2. Cook potatoes with the diced ham (if using), salt and pepper until they are just tender in 3 cups of broth.
  3. Add the ramps and simmer another 5 to 10 minutes.
  4. Whisk the flour into the milk and add to the soup. Bring just to the boiling point, stirring constantly until the soup begins to thicken.
  5. Serve hot with a small pat of butter in each bowl.

Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden, a collection of essays written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and observations of the natural world. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. It will appeal to gardeners, readers seeking a strong sense of place, and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years, has played a huge role in her life. While not a how-to book, gardeners may find the essays instructive. Booklovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.

a book cover with a photo of a lush, Vermont garden
Jo Busha’s Book of Essays about life, gardening and the natural world
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The Joyful Mystery of Seeds and Spring by Jo Busha, Author

close up photo of plant seeds started in a flat

Though this year Spring is not a joyful season, I would like to share something of my annual journey as a spring seed-planter, hoping that stories of the joy of gardening are healing for all of us. Be safe and well out there.

I like to think that the first day of spring is actually the day I plant the first seeds in flats in the cellar – usually in the first week of March. That brings spring a lot closer than waiting for astronomical Spring. And much, much closer than the spring day when I can finally go outside and work in my Vermont garden. In warm areas, seeds might be planted in the ground about now. In snow country, seeds are planted indoors to be protected and nurtured.

brand new seedling started indoors
A brand new seedling just breaking through the soil

Every year I am amazed again at the wondrous thing a seed is. Kept in the right dry and cold conditions, they can survive hundreds of years. There are reports of ancient seeds that have germinated once given the necessary conditions, including 10,000-year-old wildflower seeds found in Siberia and a 2,000-year-old date palm seed in Israel.

For a seed to germinate, water must penetrate the seed coat. As the seed absorbs water, it softens and swells, eventually causing the seed coat to burst. Germination begins when the root grows out through the opening. As the root grows, branching through the soil, the stem develops and pushes its way toward the light. At the soil surface, the hooked stem pulls the cotyledons (embryonic leaves that – like the yolk of an egg – provide the new plant with nourishment) out of the soil along with the stem tip, though in some plants, the cotyledons remain under the soil.

Once real leaves develop, allowing the plant to make its own food through photosynthesis, the cotyledons wither away. There are time-lapse videos showing a seed putting out a root and stem over the period of a week or so. It is awe-inspiring to watch the small, inert-appearing seed produce a seedling plant. The exact mechanism the seed uses to accomplish this growth is not entirely understood, even by scientists who study plants. So spring, for me, is a season of joyful mystery.

Seeds come in many sizes and configurations, from dust-like petunias to large avocado pits. Marigold seeds look like little brushes and calendula seeds are c-shaped and rough. Some need help to get water to penetrate the coat. Nature accomplishes this in various ways but that usually takes time. Gardeners have learned techniques to speed up the conditions for germination (a process called stratification). There are, for example, seeds that need a period of cold. I have a small tray of harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) in my refrigerator right now which will be pulled out in a couple of weeks, and then set on a heating pad to promote germination.

Lupine photo in vermont garden
Lupine plants started from seed

Other kinds of seeds have coats so hard gardeners are advised to crack the seed. Often the recommended technique is to use a nail clipper. I have never been able to make this work – either I clip my own finger, or the seed shoots out when pinched and disappears in the debris on the cellar floor. A couple of years ago I started seeds of three kinds of lupine for a new flower bed. Daunted by all that cracking, I finally decided to lightly crush the seeds with a wooden mortar and pestle. Worked great! I think they all germinated and the following year I had a large display of red, yellow, and white lupines.

Do you have a seed-adventure story? I hope you will share it with me in a comment below.

Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden.

a book cover with a photo of a lush, Vermont garden
Jo Busha’s Book of Essays about life, gardening and the natural world

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The Early Call of Spring by Jo Busha, Author

photo of woman standing with gardening tool over rock pile

It was 64° according to the thermometer on the front porch, but the flower beds were still under several inches of icy snow. I was antsy: It was too nice to stay indoors, and I had already taken an hour-long walk on the muddy road, up into the partially bared woodland trail.

Fortunately, I have an outdoor activity area for just such a situation.

There is a pile of rocks next to our garage. The bottom-most boulders are probably the remains from digging out the cellar when the house was built in 1860. A middle layer of oblong, 6-inch thick slabs were deposited when we had to re-do the sills and field stone cellar walls. On top of that are slabs of cement that had been the garage floor before we moved the garage from one side of the house to the other.

The rock pile has become home to a variety of wild plants whose roots snake through the gaps in the rocks and delve deep into the soil below. A good-sized red maple tree grew up through the pile for many years, but eventually succumbed to harsh conditions. Around it grew ostrich fern and greater celandine, burdock and sow thistle, buttercup and raspberries and through it all, twine Virginia creeper and wild clematis. The snow melts early on this spot, which has a much nicer southern exposure than most of the flower beds. Seems a waste, but that is the lie of the land.

So, on that warm day I knew just what to do to scratch my gardening itch. I collected cutting, raking and digging tools and headed for the rock pile. The dead maple was cut down a few years ago, and I have been puttering away at the rest of the vegetation for a couple of years. Every early spring there are days just like this – too nice to stay indoors, too early to work in the garden. I hope eventually I can tame this wild spot sufficiently to make it an attractive natural area instead of an eyesore.

a book cover with a photo of a lush, Vermont garden

Jo Busha is the author of a book of essays called Time and the Garden, which reflect on one woman’s experience and evolution as a gardener and devotee of rural, small town life. Like during the “back to the land” movement of the 1970s, we are in a period of renewed interest in gardening and agrarian lifestyles. This book will appeal to gardeners, readers looking for a strong sense of place, and those who dream of such a life even if they aren’t able to live it. It is not a how-to book, but gardeners may find the essays instructive. It is, perhaps, a cozy book, a good read on a snowy day.