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French garden diary - October 2018

Paint a floral picture in October...With autumn upon us, Cathy Thompson reveals her enduring passion for asters

October and November are perfect times for repainting the picture in your garden, since these are months when you can lift and divide herbaceous perennials with ease. There isn’t a region in France that won’t experience the blessing of cooler days and reasonable rainfall at this time, and with those two welcome factors come the bonus of a soil that is still warm and encouraging for young plant roots.

It is definitely time to get out the spade and fork for a spell of lifting and dividing in October. For instance, about five years ago I planted a small shrub of Cornus mas (cornelian cherry) in an area that I had designated as future ‘woodland’. At that time the little spot was open to bright sunlight, the cornus was tiny, and I bought plants (only one each) of Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’, Helenium ‘Moerheim’, Sedum ‘Munstead Dark Red’ and Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’. What a lift to the spirits the oranges, reds and blues gave in October for about three years.

Aster ‘Monch’ is one of my top five herbaceous perennials – in the past I used to rank it in the top three with blood-red Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and Alan Bloom’s gloriously silver-leaved, light yellow-flowered Achillea ‘Moonshine’. ‘Moonshine’ looks heavenly cool and ethereal in summer borders, but sadly it flowers earlier than the aster for whose lilac blue it would be a perfect match.

Clear violet-blue, yellow-eyed ‘Monch’ does succeed, however. The X frikartii series were bred many years ago in Germany from A. amellus (the so-called ‘Italian’ aster) and A. thomsonii and are special due to their mildew-resistance and ability to support themselves on fairly stout stems: they grow to about 80cm only. ‘Wunder von Stafa’ and ‘Jungfrau’ (both also in violet-blue, with an orange or yellow eye) are well worth trying too and I should really add them to compare with ‘Monch’.

Aster lateriflorus var. horizontalis (to 60cm) and A. cordifolius cultivars such as ‘Blue Heaven’ are not as well-known as they ought to be. The first is much-loved by florists: it makes more of a dome of branches, almost pretending to be a shrub, and throws out stiff flowering stems studded with little white, pink-eyed flowers. A. cordifolius ‘Blue Heaven’ (to 90cm) has a similar flower colour to ‘Monch’, but the little wiry stems are rather a striking black.

The aster season is so long: the x Frikartii types will have started blooming in late July/August and by October they are joined by the better known A. novae-belgii cultivars. On sunny autumn days they are a cloud of butterflies, bees and hoverflies, so any gardener who wants to offer a late season meal to their favourite resident insects should plant them – and in quantity.

Luckily October is also an ideal month to buy young plants and get them in the ground. A good selection of different cultivars is available from LePage Vivaces ( or Promesse de Fleurs (

In addition to those above, I’d recommend the traditional Michaelmas daisy cultivars ‘White Ladies’ (white, double, to 120cm), ‘Fellowship’ (pink, semi-double to 90cm), ‘Jenny’ (reddish purple, semi-double, to 30 cm), ‘Red Robin’ (dark red, double, to 60cm), ‘Coombe Violet’ (lilac-blue, semi-double, to 1.2m), ‘Blauglut’, (light violet, semi-double, to 80cm,) ‘Algar’s Pride’ (lavender blue, single, to 1.5m) and ‘Purple Dome’ (purple, semi-double, to 90cm).

Asters are terrifically accented by grasses such as stipas and deschampsias – but beware that the best time to plant grasses is in the spring, not when you are putting your asters to bed.


If you leave the tall, spent stems and seed heads of the more architectural herbaceous plants in situ now, to enjoy over the winter, you’ll find that your garden clear-up in February will be a quarter the effort of an autumn tidy: lighter, easier to handle and less mess.

Plant some little Iris reticulata in pots. Bring them into the house in February where they can scent a whole room. In the open garden they are often battered and beaten by the late winter weather.


What’s your favourite late-flowering bee or butterfly plant in the garden? You can send me an email at:


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