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Aster yomena yomena02

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Plant asters by autumn

When all else fades,
semi-trailing heath comes
into its own. In banks and borders

snow-petalled asters make a
brilliant ground cover. Shimmering
their heads: a butterfly magnet
in the wildlife garden’s

banks and borders. Plant this by autumn,
plant this great choice in height and spread
before the winter turns.


I spend the occasional sunny, bright afternoons sitting on a plastic chair in the backyard staring at the hanging roses, pink hydrangeas and purple foxgloves. I am no gardener at present, and do nothing in this patch of yard in the house where I lodge. When I was a child, I first had a corner bed in which grew a pink hibiscus bush. Later I had a patch of soil next to my wendyhouse in the back garden and as a pre-teen I changed the flowering contents of a box outside my bedroom window. Since living the rented room life, I have dabbled with the usual supermarket herbs in pots and seasonal indoor bulbs. Currently, I am nursing an Ikea spathiphyllum that moves from the chest of drawers next to my bed to the sun-catching shelf on the other side of my room. It really needs a dose of plant food and would probably benefit from re-potting.

I love spending time in green spaces, surrounded by plants, and sometimes I find myself drawn to glossy, coffee-table garden books in bookshops or the gardening pages of home magazines. Yesterday I was leafing through the Guardian Weekend and stumbled across the gardening pages and started reading the “What to do the week” section. The advice covered Thin this, Read this, Plant this; reduce clusters of fruit on your trees, read up about 101 chillies and consider planting asters in time for autumn.

Today’s resulting poem is drawn from the column and echoes another poem, “look – really look”. This poem of two years ago (and uncannily this very time of year) was also inspired by the Guardian Weekend’s gardening pages. The relationship between gardening, seasons and plants holds a deep mystery for me. Birds, and especially butterflies, are for me symbolic messengers from another realm. My paternal grandmother was a botanist and her interest in the flowering world seemed to be the science and beauty. My interest is the beauty and lessons it offers about our human flurries.

It is no coincidence that garden banks and border feature in today’s poem during these times when both national and economic security are under pressure in many parts of the world. There is something of ‘the lilies of the valley in all their beauty’ about the delicate snow-petalled asters. Yet, as they trail like other determined ground-covers, they may prove the surviving, life-continuing film when the monuments of mankind have faltered. There are seasons of all kinds, both in the natural world and in our rhythm as humanity. Perhaps planting star-like flowers is not such a bad task to consider before autumn. As three of my favourite lines from “look – really look” remind us:

Concrete is brutal.
It needs softening.
Plants should have dominion.

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Cape blue waterlily (Nymphaea capensis var. zanzibariensis) (8103217895)

By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Another short story from the hip.

Fenstone’s Flower

Fenstone was in his favourite pottering spot for a not quite warm, though there be some sunlight day. He had finished washing the Saturday breakfast crockery and cutlery, scraping down the plates of scrambled egg residue and croissant crumbs. This was Peggy and Fenstone’s Saturday morning treat and it had been for the last 15 years since they moved into this house with the garden.

The garden had at first proved a novelty after the small patch of grass behind their starter house. The patch of grass had seemed a social upgrade on the balcony of potted tomato plants he had nurtured in the flat preceding the starter house. Part of the novelty of the full garden was its spaciousness and the two fully grown trees that had established themselves on the plot. Further novelty was the weekends spent idling in garden centres, picking out shrubs and plants. Peggy soon wearied of these outings. They took her away from chattering sessions with her friends. Fenstone was quite happy to continue the trips on his own. He went more often than was needed to replace the seasonal annuals or seek out vegetable seeds for fresh sowing.

Fenstone’s garden centre escapes were as regularly scheduled as his public garden visits. Botanical gardens, country house gardens, stately home gardens of all sizes, near and abroad either featured on Fenstone’s travel wish list or welcomed him as an eager visitor. But all these other places could not replace his favourite corner, his own garden.

Over the decade and a half they had lived in the house, it had become Fenstone’s garden. In the early days, he had employed the garden maintenance firm, a group of reliable Spanish men, all related they claimed, who had worked wonders at giving the space character and depth. What had been a square of grass, sided by two beds and sentried by the two established trees was transformed into a wonderland entered into by a curving path. The fish pond with a few blue water lilies, a delightful addition for many years, had recently been filled in at Peggy’s request. With small grandchildren around, the open water was now a hazard. Fenstone had salvaged the bulbs from the water lily plants and had promised them to another gardening friend.

After the Spaniards had returned home to retire, Fenstone had employed whichever young lad in the suburb felt inclined to earn some money sweeping, mowing, weeding or planting.The garden was now established and in his own retirement Fenstone had the time, and fortunately, the physical strength to continue with much of the maintenance himself. And nothing brought him more joy than the thought of a half or full day in his garden, and especially pottering in his potting shed.

In the potting shed Fenstone had coaxed all manner of vegetables, soft fruits and flowers through the cold and overcast winters. Last season’s strawberries were a great success and this year he planned to nurture a rainbow of fragrant hyacinths that would be planted at intervals in the wonderland. The bulbs had arrived the day before, so on this Saturday, Fenston had set the day aside to prepare the pots with nourished soil and plant the bulbs. Fenstone had spent many autumns preparing pots for not yet germinated seeds and bulbs, as well as fledgling seedlings. The potting shed was the preparation shed for Fenstone’s vision for the coming flowering season.

Fenstone pushed the water lily bulbs that he was drying out aside. He opened the bad of hyacinth bulbs and spread them out on his workshelf. The potting began.


It was not until six months later, in May, that Peggy went into the potting shed. Rotting plants, soil and spiders were not to her liking, but once spring arrived and it felt as though the world was brightening, she ventured out into the garden and into Fenstone’s old hideaway. She looked around and sighed. He had been such a stickler for order and it was evident even here, even six months later. The compost bags piled according to type, the garden soil and potting soil separated, not a cracked or grossly chipped pot in sight. Even the spider webs hung from their proper places in the roof corners.

The most orderly sight of all was Fenstone’s ranks of flowering hyacinths. Their scent was too strong for Peggy and she started to sneeze. This was not enough to put her off, today she had to clear out the shed because the movers would be arriving in four weeks. She did not have time to dawdle. She called out to her daughter in the kitchen, “Helen, sorry to trouble you, my hayfever’s playing up. Would you mind giving me a hand down here?”

Helen came down the winding path to the potting shed, “Wow! They are spectacular! Such a pity Dad isn’t here to see the results. And what’s the blue one over there? It looks like a water lily flower? I’m pretty sure they grow and survive potted in soil.”

Peggy and Helen stepped over to the opened flower, “Let’s take it up to the house and give some of Fenstone’s gardening friends a call. This calls for an expert’s opinion.”

Helen placed the pot on the kitchen windowsill. At dusk, the flower closed up. Peggy asked two of Fenstone’s gardening friends to come over the next day to confirm what they had witnessed.

The next morning Helen went down to put on the kettle. She scanned the windowsill for the opened flower. All that was left in the pot was a shrivelled stem.