Mickey Rathbun: Of politics and asters

  • Aster amellus in sunlight Dalattraveler—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Published: 9/1/2016 5:44:50 PM

One of the most eminent gardeners in Amherst’s history is the historian and journalist Ray Stannard Baker, who lived on Sunset Avenue in the early decades of the past century.

He wrote several very popular books under the pen name David Grayson, including The Countryman’s Year, a month-by-month account of his outdoor life here and his love for many things, including asters.

In his September chapter, his rambling, lively notes include mention of books he’s reading — Gibbons’ “Decline and Fall,” a biography of Sir Thomas More —as well as fruits he’s harvesting: white-fleshed Carman peaches, Bartlett pears and two kinds of grapes, Moore’s Early and Niagras.

He also makes detailed observations of his beehives, comparing the behavior of bees with humans. “Unlike man, no bee ever has any secret or individual life,” he writes. “Such things as illness, injuries, the decrepitude of age are sternly dealt with by the bee society: weakness or defectiveness means death. Pity is nonexistent.”

As I was leafing through the chapter, one section jumped out at me as particularly relevant to our current moment in history:

“My good friend Waugh has an infallible cure for political disgust. ‘Asters,’ says he, ‘are always delightful and interesting, but in a political campaign they are indispensable. When one is thoroughly disgusted reading political speeches he can always go out and look at the asters and feel better.’ ”

(Waugh, by the way, was Frank A. Waugh, an eminent landscape architect who founded an undergraduate program in landscape gardening at Massachusetts Agricultural College, now the University of Massachusetts, in 1903, that later became the Department of Landscape Architecture.)

I have been thinking about politics and asters this week. I swing between reading and watching the election news obsessively and then being so fed up I can’t stand another word.

I am also at extremes with gardening, given the drought that’s descended on Western Massachusetts this summer. I find myself periodically giving up on my garden. No more watering! No more weeding! It’s hopeless!

Then I get a new burst of energy as I think about the pleasures of the autumn garden, New England asters (Aster novi-Angliae) in particular.

Just when the summer bloomers are looking tattered and faded, New England asters are coming into their own, bringing new life and color to a tired-looking perennial bed. They range in color from pink to deep red and lavender to purple.

As I wrote in an earlier column, asters do best when they are pinched or cut back in mid-summer. This results in bushier, denser plants. It’s too late to do that now, but you can still stake sprawlers as needed.

Later in the fall, you might want to divide them; they appreciate this every two or three years.

In the spring, cut them back and fertilize them. They like rich, moist, well-drained soil and plenty of air circulation.

I love the idea of asters as a balm in the autumn season of political campaigns. At this point, we all need to take a break and appreciate whatever’s managed to stay alive in the garden.

Give your plants some TLC in the form of water, staking and trimming and tune out the political hullabaloo for a while.

Tomatoes and carnivorous plants at Tower Hill

Saturday, from 11 a.m. till 4 p.m., Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston is sponsoring Tomato Day. There will be tomato tastings, tours, cooking demos and much more.

The following weekend, Sept. 10-11, plant lovers and all those who enjoy something different will be able to get up close to hundreds of carnivorous plants exhibited by the members of the New England Carnivorous Plant Society. The show will be open Sept. 10 from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. and Sept. 11, 10 a.m. till 4 p.m.

Visitors will have a chance to purchase their own from top vendors in the area. Both events are free with the price of admission.

For more information go to: towerhillbg.com.

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