It is time to give some of our favorite fall-blooming perennials HAIR CUTS if you want them bushy (and not top heavy and floppy) by fall.
Years ago Flora for Fauna (native plant nursery) owner Karen Williams shared some sage advice about maintaining one of my favorite native perennials, New England Aster, and I’m about to share it with you. Though this post is for folks with plants that are several years old and flourishing, not for brand, spanking new plants that have just been put into the ground this year.
NEW ENGLAND ASTER
2 HAIR CUTS: Memorial Day & 4th of July
New England Aster can get very tall and top heavy by the time it blooms in the fall. And the last thing any of us want is for its lovely spread of glowing purple flowers, nectar, and joy to be laying on the ground come fall.
To help it grow into a many-branched, bushy plant instead of a tall, gangly, top-heavy plant, all you need to do is to give it 2 hair cuts on or around the 1st two holidays of the growing season: Memorial Day and 4th of July. Of course these dates are not single-day events, but roughly when you want to give New England Aster its hair cuts. Too, you can be the judge if you need to do your hair cuts earlier. With the cool and relatively wet (and very pleasant) spring we’ve had in southern NJ in 2023, I noticed that my plants needed hair cuts quite a while ago. So, I jump started the process this year by almost a month!
As a wildlife gardener I don’t clean up and toss the cuttings, but instead leave them on the ground at the base of the plant. That way any caterpillars that went for a tumble with the cuttings can climb back onto the plant and continue to munch. Doug Tallamy (author of Bringing Nature Home, Nature’s Best Hope, and The Nature of Oaks) shares that 112 species of butterflies and moths lay their eggs on our native asters, making asters one of the TOP 20 perennials used by butterflies and moths for egg laying. Don’t be surprised if some of your cuttings take root and become additional asters!
Around Memorial Day, I cut each stem 1/2 (or 2/3) off (or about a foot or two off the top, depending on how tall it is, if that is easier for you to remember). I use big shears and just chop away. What happens next is that each cut plant stem sends out 2 or more new shoots where it has been cut, in other words it branches and becomes more bushy!
Some of my asters get regular haircuts from plentiful E. Cottontails (they must think our yard is one large salad bowl crafted just for them). I’ve planted the lovely fall-blooming, shade loving Common Blue Wood Aster, Symphyotrichum cordifolium, under our Tulip Tree and in our woods. Despite hungry rabbits it has flourished and spread into other beds, our meadow, the perennial garden, and elsewhere and that pleases me. It is so plentiful that it keeps the rabbits busy and away from most other asters. We’ve fenced our yard, so deer are not an issue for us. But other gardeners share that deer routinely give their asters hair cuts.
Around 4th of July, I give my plants their 2nd hair cut (not back to the 1st cut, but cutting back some of the new growth since Memorial Day). You may want to be more creative for this hair cut and cut the many stems in your plant different lengths. For instance, give the stems in the foreground more of a hair cut, the stems in the middle less of a hair cut, and the stems in the back just a little hair cut. This way your plant stems will bloom at different heights.
You may find that some plants haven’t grown as tall as others, so you may choose to pass on the 2nd hair cut for some plants. If so, you’ll find that these plants will bloom earlier. This staggers the blooming period so that you have New England Aster nectar, color, and joy far longer in your wildlife garden.
A bit more advice: once given hair cuts, New England Aster has “ugly legs.” The stems below the 1st haircut look “not so nice” . . . the leaves darken and fall off and the stems are quite bare. So you’ll want to have other perennials in the foreground blocking that view, so you’re not looking at ugly bare legs.
You can give 1-2 haircuts to some other fall-blooming perennials that grow tall and flop, so they’ll instead branch and become more bushy:
For some summer-blooming plants that grow too tall for your garden, you can give them one haircut around Memorial Day, forcing them to branch, become bushier, and bloom lower. I sometimes do this with some of my favorite summer nectar plants so that I have an easier time seeing and photographing pollinators on them:
Garden Phlox (I tried this for the 1st time in 2023)
You can always experiment on other fall-blooming perennials that have flopped in your garden. If you’re not sure how hair cuts will turn out on plants other than those I’ve mentioned, try giving a hair cut to one stem ONLY (or if you have several plants of Cut-leafed Coneflower, for example, in your garden, give one of them hair cuts so you can compare results with your uncut plants). Then see how your plant reacts and whether you like the results.
This year for the 1st time (at the suggesting of Lynn Pollard, a Garden Gang Member), I began giving another plant hair cuts so it grows bushier and lusher for egg-laying Black Swallowtails (otherwise I was ending up with very tall and sparsely leafed, seed-heavy stalks). Obviously the seed-heavy stalks were problematic, resulting in buckets of seedlings underneath:
Happy Wildlife Gardening,