Designing with Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’

text and photography by CAROL KLEIN

IN OUR GARDENS, AS IN THE WILD, plants live together. Rather than leaving such associations random, however, the gardener must decide who lives with whom, because the way plants relate to each other is what makes a garden distinctive. This can be a challenging but satisfying process. Provided we follow the simple rule of using plants that enjoy the prevailing conditions, the possibilities are endless.

In this series, we choose a main player and put it together with five different supporting casts. Each combination creates a different scenario. Sometimes there are several players putting on the show. Occasionally it is a simple duet. In each case the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

LEAD PLAYER Our chosen main player for these scenarios is Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’ (USDA Zones 3-8). Picking favorites is always dangerous, but this has to be one of my top-ten perennial plants. Its strong upright stems (it needs no staking) terminate in big branching heads of perfect blue daisies with clear yellow centers. At close quarters, each daisy is distinct from the next, yet from a distance the flowers merge to create clouds of blue. It flowers from the end of summer deep into fall. The matte, dark leaves are refined, pointed, and elegant; they first make tight, healthy rosettes and later serve admirably to clothe the flower stems. Most important, they are never disfigured by the powdery mildew to which so many asters are prone.

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 88.

Combination 1

(1) Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’; (2) Hedychium densiflorum ‘Assam Orange’; (3) Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’

High drama here, with the towering panicles of the ginger lilies contrasting with the refined tracery of the fennel’s flower stems. The clouds of blue daisies appear all the more nebulous against the conspicuous foliage of the ginger lily-leaves that, later in the season, turn to gold.

Ginger lilies luxuriate in rich soil, but fennel much prefers poorer, drier conditions. In colder gardens where ginger lilies must be lifted in winter, it is worth enriching the soil in the vacated spot with old manure or homemade compost.

Supporting Cast

Ginger lilies have a reputation for being tender and difficult. While the first is undoubtedly the case, the second is simply untrue. Hedychium densiflorum ‘Assam Orange’ (Zones 7-10), from the eastern Himalayas, is one of the easiest of the genus. Its five-foot-tall flower stems are dressed with long, paddle-shaped leaves tapering to a point. Scores of tiny orange-and-red flowers make up the flower spikes. Tubers build up rapidly, provided they are never frozen, and within three years one or two can turn themselves into a sizable clump.

Bronze fennel, Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ (Zones 6-9) is just good fun. A short-lived umbel from the Mediterranean region, it can reach six or seven feet in a season and bears delightful tuffets of bronze, ferny foliage. In very cold areas it will not overwinter successfully, but it can be started from seed sown indoors. Once it has seeded, there will be plenty of infants coming up on their own each year.

Combination 2

(1) Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’; (2) Chasmanthium latifolium; (3) Achillea ‘Terracotta’; (4) Vitis coignetiae

Although the elements of this partnership are very diverse, the soft hues of green, russet, yellow, and blue have a parity that makes them work together in an easy-on-the-eye way. There are no bullies among them, and even the bright new heads of the yarrow are muted by the presence of older flowers of parchment yellow. Moreover, there is a real sense of space. Despite living cheek by jowl, each element has enough room to be itself; even when the spiky awns of the grass hoist themselves through the middle of the asters, there is no sense of invasion-just a delightful mingling. The vertical plane of overlapping vine leaves makes a perfect backdrop. While all four enjoy relatively fertile soil, none of these plants needs any attention throughout the growing season apart from an occasional liquid feed if the soil is poor.

Supporting Cast

Grasses have become ubiquitous in naturalistic plantings over the last few years, but Chasmanthium latifolium (Zones 5-9) is seldom seen outside its native North America. The broad blades of this superb grass are the brightest of bright greens in spring, and its soft growth mingles well with early risers. Although it is a shade lover in its native habitat at Glebe Cottage we grow it in an open position in moist soil to encourage flowering. As the summer progresses, its leaves lengthen and take on russety hues. Simultaneously, the flower heads begin to emerge, held on wiry stems above the gently arching foliage.

Achillea ‘Terracotta’ (Zones 3-9) is one of the new breed of yarrows so popular in the more relaxed schemes of modern gardens. Like most of them, it is a hybrid between Achillea millefolium and Achillea ‘Taygetea’. Its plateau-like heads are composed of tiny daisies. They gradually change and fade from light to dark over the course of the summer. It requires an open, sunny position.

Although it should not, strictly speaking, be included in this collection of perennial plants, Vitis coignetiae (Zones 5-9), a vigorous Asiatic vine, has immense leathery leaves, brilliant green all summer long, that take on spectacular autumnal tints ranging from vivid orange to deep wine red. It makes a great backdrop.

Combination 3

(1) Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’; (2) Bidens aurea; (3) Patrinia scabiosifolia; (4) Elegia capensis; (5) Actaea simplex (Cimicifuga) Atropurpurea Group

This mixture is unstructured and wild. There is a sense of each plant doing its own thing and yet contributing to the overall picture. The aster furnishes a fluffy horizontal base with the elegia, bidens, actaea, and patrinia using it to launch their stems upwards and outwards. The grasslike elegia adds texture and substance to the mix; the patrinia contributes bright explosions of arresting color, which make the aster all the more blue. In contrast, the bidens’s loose daisies are less purposeful and look like itinerant butterflies settling here and there.

With the exception of the aster and actaea, which can take dappled shade, a sunny position and good soil are essential to all these plants. Moisture, too, is a requisite, since the bidens will wilt on very hot days if its extensive roots begin to dry out. Dig in plenty of humusrich material before planting and add some slow-release fertilizer, preferably organic.

Supporting Cast

Bidens aurea (Zone B), when grown from seed, can vary from vivid chrome yellow to pale lemon. A vigorous Mexican plant with a running rootstock, its colonizing activity is curtailed only by frost. Although it grows lushly in moist, fertile soil, it succumbs in wet, cold winters. It is advisable to pot up a few roots.

Patrinia scabiosifolia (Zones 5-8), related to valerian, is a rising star in the perennial sky. Its basal foliage is long and divided, hence its name, “scabious-leaved.” The light yellow flowers are borne on branching heads like those of Verbena bonariensis (with which it looks wonderful).

Elegia capensis (Zone 8) is one of an exciting new range of restio from South Africa. It is evergreen and constantly produces new shoots. Dividing plants from time to time keeps them in check. In colder areas, the plants should be lifted and potted for the winter.

Actaea simplex (Cimicifuga) Atropurpurea Group (Zones 3-9) has bold bronze leaves in spring and summer. In autumn its flowers-tall, white, exquisitely scented spires-come into their own.

Combination 4

(1) Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’; (2) Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii

This scintillating duo is simplicity itself. Nothing is needed to enhance the pairing of these daisies. Their contrasting but complementary sizes and colors-one in the brightest chrome yellow imaginable, the other soft blue verging on lilac-reinforce the balance. The blue recedes and the yellow thrusts itself forward, emphasized by the rudbeckia’s coal-black centers. It is pattern that is important here. The flowers float above the leaf stems as if sewn to a dark backdrop, and the surface seems to ripple.

Because both these plants originate in the same place-the American prairies-they get along famously together on nothing more than good soil and sun. They will thrive in heavy clay or any substantial loam. Both are hardy. Cutting back their flower stems can be left until spring; their spent heads decorate the winter garden, and the cones of the rudbeckia make excellent food for birds. Here they are planted deliberately so that flowers mingle.

Supporting Cast

Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii (Zones 5-8) is another of my favorites. Stalwart and sturdy, it makes strong clumps with good basal foliage. During the summer each clump builds up quietly, the flower stems branching again and again, each lateral terminating in a bud. Finally, the scrolled green petals change to yellow, and flowering goes on for months.

Combination 5

(1) Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’; (2) Arundo donax var. versicolor, (3) Anemone xhybrida ‘Konigin Charlotte’; (4) xAmarygia parkeri ‘Alba’

Crisp blue and white with an undertone of dark green make this a very chic combination. White resonates through the planting, from the large white blobs of the anemone to the elegant foliage of the grass, and culminates in the big, beautiful trumpets of the amarygia. There is no need for any “splashes of colorrsquo;; indeed, any additions would be superfluous. The constellations of tiny aster flowers take on a new depth beside the pristine whiteness of the other components.

Supporting Cast

The giant reed Arundo donax (Zones 7-11) is one of the biggest and boldest of grasses. A native of the Mediterranean shore, where it is often seen growing along low-lying creeks and waterways, it has been increasingly adopted as a garden plant. The variegated version, though it will never achieve the lofty proportions of the species, will reach a splendid and sturdy six feet. In its best selections the leaves are almost white with splashes here and there of glaucous green. Not frost-hardy, it can be cut to the ground during the winter; new shoots will emerge to keep it looking dapper.

At five feet or so, Anemone xhybrida ‘Konigin Charlotte’ (Zones 5-7) is one of the tallest of the autumn anemones, and with round, pink-washed buds and substantial chalice-shaped flowers held on branching stems, it is by far the classiest. A double row of petals gives each flower great substance. The petals are all the same size, so there is no fussiness about them. Their whiteness is set off by a green center surrounded by a corolla of bright yellow stamens.

As fragrant as a candy store, xAmarygia parkeri ‘Alba’ (Zones 8-11) is one of the showiest members of the aster’s entourage. This gorgeous South African bulb flowers best in a sun-baked position and should be planted several inches deep to promote flower production. The plant’s straplike leaves appear in late winter and can be damaged by frost. xAmarygia parkeri is thus best planted at the foot of a wall.

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