After I finished planting my summer flower garden -- hot-weather varieties such as zinnias, marigolds, dahlias, petunias, and so on -- I congratulated myself, then suddenly realized I had left an open space in the south flower bed, where I had taken out some snapdragons.
So what was I to plant in that empty spot? As I mulled it over, I remembered that I hadn’t grown asters for a couple of years. So that was my choice -- China asters.
I generally grow half my flowers from seed and plant the other half from bedding plants I get at local nurseries and garden centers. But it was now too late to try to start China asters from seed, so off I went to see what might be available.
Hunting for asters
I headed for one of the big-box stores first since it was close. I prefer the tall China asters, because they make such good cut flowers, although some of the dwarf kinds make good border plants.
I looked over the assortment of bedding plants and saw no asters at all. So I asked, and the nice young sales assistant said, “No, sorry we don’t have any asters right now, they’re a winter flower!”
I don’t like to argue with the sales help, so I thanked her and headed for the next big-box store. There the nice young assistant said “Sure, we’ve got some right over here,” and he led me over to a bench that was loaded with zinnias.
I told him to read the label, and that they were zinnias, not asters. He wasn’t in the least upset, saying ”Oh, they aren’t the same thing?”
I didn’t comment further.
So I headed for the only real nursery we have in the vicinity and looked around, and saw no China asters. So again, I asked. The lady, I think the owner, said, “No, sorry, we don’t have any. We ordered some last year and again this year, but they never delivered any.”
I had one more big-box store to go by on the way home, and I decided if they didn’t have any asters, I would have to rethink my plan, and plant something else in the open spot.
This last store didn’t have any either. The clerk, who was watering at the time, said, “Just a minute, I’ll find them for you.” Then she led me over to a large display of vinca and said, “Here they are, any color you want.”
I hesitated to correct her, but I did anyway, much to her amazement. So she said, “Well, try them anyway, or over here, how about some lantana, or over here some of these in the four-inch pots?”
I thanked her, said no, and went over to a display of red salvia and got a six-pack of them for my open space.
I think I know why the wholesale growers don’t supply China asters to garden centers. They are a slow crop, germination isn’t always good (aster seed is viable for only a year), and they won’t bloom in the six-packs (shoppers look for plants in flower).
Maybe those are poor reasons not to supply them, but it’s their decision.
So next year, when I'm planning my flower beds, I’ll plant China aster seed.
Gerald Burke is a travel and horticultural writer who lives in southern California. He spent more than 30 years in the seed business and is a member of the Garden Writers Association. To read more of what he has written here at Diggin' It, click here.