This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
I AM both a grower and exhibitor of the Aster, and at the end of the season I take up my pen to detail my experiences of the sorts I, during the summer, took in hand for the purpose of growing for exhibition. I take it for granted some of your readers are exhibitors of flowers, and probably among them will be found those who grow the Aster for competition. I hope, therefore, to make my remarks acceptable to some of these.
Much as I admire and gloat over the superb beauty of a stand of finely-finished blooms of the quilled or German Aster, I am fully alive to the fact that much high feeding and disbudding is necessary to produce these fine flowers. I don't take kindly to them somehow. As a general rule, they are dull-coloured, and, unless the plants are protected, they are apt to have a cloudy and even dirty appearance. I have given up growing the quilled Asters, both for exhibition and decorative purposes: the latter, because of the reasons just named; the former, because I got tired of almost entirely stripping my plants of buds and side shoots for the sake of obtaining two or three flowers on each, fit for the exhibition-table. One has to manure, and water, and shade, and bestow the most careful tending, just to obtain a few blooms, which may perhaps fail one just when they are most needed.
In what are known as the flat-petalled Asters I get something to my mind; and I grow them, and enjoy the rich full harvest of flowers they yield. Of these I grow four types - viz., Truffaut's Peony-flowered, which give both reflexed and incurved flowers of large size, and in good variety of colours; the Victoria, which I have no hesitation in pronouncing the finest Aster in cultivation; the dwarf Chrysanthemum-flowered, one of the most useful kinds, both of which produce handsome and symmetrically-shaped flowers; and the Crown-flowered, so named because of having a large disc of white in the centre of the blooms. These four I now rely on to furnish me with collections of flowers for the annual struggles in our district in the month of August.
Truffaut's Aster is tall in growth, and frequently ungainly in habit, but I like it because it is so certain. One can always cut plenty of good flowers from plants that have not had special attention. It is an Aster that affords as much variation in colour as any kind I know of. I grew this season the seed from a collection of Truffaut's Aster in eight varieties, and at any time I could have cut as many as twelve blooms differing materially in the hue of colour, saying nothing about softer and heavier shades of apparently the same variety, and the difference in the flowers from the same plant occasioned by their relative age. The flowers also vary in form, but by far the greatest number are raised in the centre, the petals folding over from the outside towards the centre, and they are then known as "incurved " flowers. In this form they are very handsome when staged for exhibition. Another form is the "reflexed " flowers - in these the petals are thrown back from the centre to the circumference of the blooms. In this way they are also very handsome; but the difficulty is to get the centre full and raised, and of a uniform hue of colour with the other portion of the flower.
I had two kinds of the Chrysanthemum-flowered Aster - one as tall-growing as Truffaut's, the other the ordinary form of the dwarf-growing kind. Both are very handsome and varied in colour, though not so varied in form, but somewhat late in flowering; and the grower does not get the best flowers in time for the early Aster shows. The flowers are of large size, and very full. The dwarf Chrysanthemum-flowered is very compact in habit of growth; and I often wonder beds of this variety are not more frequently planted out in large flower-gardens. The Victoria Aster is a splendid and sure kind for exhibition purposes, and without exception the finest Aster grown. The habit of growth is erect, and reaches a height of about 12 inches. It does not present so many dense hues of colour as Truffaut's, yet the flowers are large and full, and of considerable depth. Year by year some new shade of colour appears to be added, and a greater diversity of hue is thereby obtained. I find, however, that some of the most decided colours to be obtained in the Aster are found in the Victoria type - such as crimson, blue, purple, rose, carmine, and white.
This fine Aster simply wants rich soil, plenty of moisture and room; and I am persuaded the cultivator will never abandon it when once he has made a trial of it.
Though my remarks are mainly directed to the use of the Aster as an exhibition-flower, its usefulness for decorative purposes must not be overlooked. Scarcely anything is so gay or so pleasant to the eye as a border well studded with Asters; and scarcely is anything more useful during the summer months. But none of the tall-growing types that have the habit of hanging down their flowers, as if always in a dejected mood, should be employed for the purpose. There are one or two dwarf-growing types of the quilled flowers that are very useful for the purpose, but give me the Victoria and the dwarf Chrysanthemum-flowered. I sometimes amuse myself by looking over the seed catalogues at the lists of the different types of Asters therein arranged, and I am led to fancy they are constructed especially to bewilder and torment poor unsuspecting folk, who cannot know much about them. I have bought much rubbish in this way in the time past, but I have done with that for ever. I now know something about Asters, and I always get for my money that which amply repays me; and because I am anxious other growers should not be disappointed I have here set down my Aster experiences.
I sow later than sowing is sometimes done. The end of March, or the beginning of April, is my time for doing it. I plant out in small beds, putting the plants in lines about 12 inches apart, and the plants about 9 inches apart in the row. Some assure me I crowd my plants; I fancy I don't, and so continue to plant 9 inches apart. The beds are previously prepared by forking into the soil plenty of rotten manure, and working it well together till light and friable. When the plants get from 6 to 9 inches in height, I scoop out the soil between the rows to the depth of 3 inches, and fill up the space with some rotten manure, and I cover the surface of the beds with a layer of the same. Unless the weather is very dry, not much watering is required. When the blooms are filling out, those intended for the exhibition-table are helped with some weak liquid-manure; yet it is hardly essential. From plants grown in this way I get exceedingly fine blooms, and seldom do I miss taking the first prize at our local show the last week in August, though I have to fight hard to secure that honour.
But in these days of severe competition we must fight if we would excel.
A bed of Asters is an admirable preparation for a plantation of Roses in the autumn. Those who contemplate making a Rose-bed should grow Asters the previous summer, and when they are removed, well trench the ground. If fine blooms of Roses are not produced the following season - well, then, I am but an indifferent prophet.