Asters Vs. Mums – You Decide

mums at garden center for web

A typical garden center this time of year where I live.

This time of year every garden center I drive past is full of row after row of mums and about nothing else.  Even though fall is a great time for planting perennials and shrubs – you really don’t see much for sale. Just end of the year clearance things that look less than stellar.  Some savvy gardeners take advantage of the sales – but I think the general public doesn’t realize how much they are missing out!  Now I understand that if you want a mum or two by your front door for fall decoration – they might make sense.  But I also see what I think is a surprising amount of landscaping done with mums this time of year.  They are some pretty pricey annuals in my opinion!

Mums and pumpkins make nice front door decorations

Mums and pumpkins make nice front door decorations

mums in landscaping for web

But mums make for some pretty pricey (and sterile!) fall landscaping!

mums landscaping

This bed was just planted last week at our local shopping mall parking lot.

Instead of mums for fall color in the garden, I turn to our native asters.  They are a very important food source for many of our native butterflies and pollinators this time of year – and they are pretty too! Most of the mums you find for sale have lots of petals and not lots of pollen – so they don’t provide a benefit for our native pollinators at a time of year when they really need to fuel up for the long winter months ahead! If you do buy mums, looks for kinds that have single flowers like these so that they are pretty and they have a benefit for our pollinators too.

mums for web

Most mums at garden centers look like this. Pretty – but nothing there for our pollinators!

I did find one that looked like this. It wasn't labeled so I don't know what it is - but if you are going to buy mums - try to buy ones that look like this.

I did find one for sale at the garden center that looked like this. It wasn’t labeled so I don’t know what it is – but if you are going to buy mums – try to buy ones that look like this.

New York Aster for web

New York Aster

Previous posts have shown some of the great visitors you can find on our asters. But previous posts have also talked about some of the problems that gardeners have with asters in the garden. Mainly, that they tend to be large and gangly and take up more than their fair share in the garden.  They also tend to have what I endearingly call ‘aster ankles’ – and benefit from a shorter plant in front of them to hide their less than picturesque brown stems.  Most of the asters that gardeners are familiar with have these problems – such as New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and New York Aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii).  These are two of the more commonly found native asters for sale.  New England Aster gets so tall that it often is guilty of ‘leaning’ as Ursula Vernon so aptly described in an earlier post.  And New York Aster puts out so many runners and spreads so fast that I started weeding it out of my garden thinking it was goldenrod before I realized that I was actually weeding out the very plant I had planted the year before!  Now don’t get me wrong – these are both great plants when in the right place – but they can be frustrating for gardeners with smaller spaces.  They do best in large perennial borders where they have plenty of room.  So I understand that they don’t exactly fill the same landscaping niche as mums do.  But so what is everyone supposed to do?  Just give in and buy mums every year?

New England Aster 'Purple Dome'

New England Aster ‘Purple Dome’

Luckily – there are a number of smaller, better behaved asters available as well. I think these should be considered as some viable mum substitutions.  Some of these are better known than others.  Smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and Showy aster (Eurybia spectabilis) are two great options that we grow at our nursery.  They both stay much shorter, Smooth aster in the 2-3′ range and Showy aster in the 1-2′ range.  Of the two, I prefer the habit of smooth aster, it stands up pretty straight for the most part, while showy aster tends to be looser and more flopsy.  However, showy aster blooms the earliest of any of the asters I have mentioned – so it is a great choice for adding color to the garden when many of your summer blooms are done but your fall blooms (like your other asters and maybe your false dragonhead) haven’t started yet.

Another great choice – and perhaps the best match for looking like a mum in terms of habit – is New England Aster ‘Purple Dome’. This is a dwarf cultivar of New England Aster, and instead of growing 3-5 ft  ( or 6 ft like they do in my garden!) like the straight species New England Asters, this little cultivar stays a neat 18-24″ – making it great for smaller spaces.

There have been many discussion about planting ‘nativars’ on this blog already – and there are good arguments on both sides of the discussion – but in my opinion – planting ‘purple dome’ is better than mums – since ‘purple dome’ is great for our pollinators while mums are not.  We grow this one at our nursery in New York too and really like it.  These are just some of the great native asters that we have in New York.  I’m sure there are some other great ones out there in other parts of the country that I haven’t mentioned.  And if you can’t decide which aster you like the best – then try them all out!

Smooth Aster

Smooth Aster

Showy Aster

Showy Aster


© 2013, Emily DeBolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. denise meehan says

    Oh I just despise Mums. Where I am, Zone 7A, they had become perennials. I ripped them out with glee
    2 seasons ago and have established Canada Ginger in their stead.

    I am very interested in locating Native Groundcovers for a bed I have been renovating… I am trying to stick with white flowers.

    The rabbits ate the nannyberry’s,; then I planted foam flowers, which deterred the rabbits, but they are sort of meh! not great but 1st season in.

    Does Fiddlehead Creek ship ? That would be fantastic !

    I have gotten most of my asters at the supermarket – ours sells plants in front! This year though, no asters, plenty of Mums, and a buttonbush that may or may not be native. Perhaps it is weather related ? My asters bloomed early, except for the stand of calico’s I have in the back of our .25 acre yard.

    Thanks for the post, I did not realize that legginess came with the aster territory.

  2. Hendrica Regez says

    Very timely post – thank you! Also worth mentioning: many mums are treated with systemic insecticides like neonicitinoids which are toxic to pollinators…

  3. rambling Woods says

    Great post. I have planted several species of native asters and have goldenrod…. My yard is busy with pollinators…but sadly I am alone in my neighborhood in having a native, pesticide free yard… Michelle

  4. Pat Sutton says

    Emily, thank you for shifting our focus onto stunning native asters and away from showy (but offering zip) Mums. I love-love-love asters and all they attract (benefit) and have many different ones in bloom in my southern NJ garden right now, with others still to come into bloom. A wildlife gardening friend taught me years ago how to tame my asters so they’d not crowd out other plants and would bloom more bush-like and not so tall that they flopped. I’ve followed her advice ever since and shared it with many, many gardening friends. ASTER ADVICE: Give asters a hair cut on the 2 holidays: Memorial Day and 4th of July. Each haircut results in the plants branching and becoming more bush like. By cutting back the 2nd time, they branch ever more. Doing very aggressive hair cuts results in nicely rounded busy-like asters. I like to give my asters in the back of the garden subtle haircuts and my asters towards the front of garden beds more severe haircuts. This results in layered blooms which just keep coming, extending the blooming season and those delirious purples and blues of asters. Thank you for jazzing people about asters!!!
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Monarchs, Where are They in 2013 ?

    • Emily DeBolt says

      Pat – thanks for the advice! I do try to remember to pinch my asters in the garden back – but sometimes I don’t get around to it… but the idea of the 2 holidays will hopefully help me remember! I do the same thing you are talking about with the layers with my beebalm too – and it works really well.

    • Shawnee L. Papincak says

      yes aster & mum do need cut back 2 times a season so they don’t get leggy it make them get tighter bloom heads

  5. Leah says

    Nice post – I’ve linked to it from my blog. I’ve always disliked the weird fall colors that mums come in, such as the copper ones, but it never occurred to me that they don’t offer anything for pollinators. I’ll keep an eye out for the small aster species you suggest. They’re much prettier than mums, IMHO.
    Leah recently posted..Asters versus mums

  6. Kathy Settevendemie says

    Yeah for asters! A much underused species! Thanks for a great post Emily! Asters are often confused with Fleabanes (the bracts on Fleabanes are parallel whereas the bracts on Asters are overlapping) because the flowers are similar, but as a general rule asters bloom later than most fleabanes. We have a number of late blooming asters and fleabanes here in Montana including Smooth Blue Aster (Aster laevis), White Prairie Aster (Aster falcatus) and Leafy Aster (Eurybia conspicua) as well as Showy Fleabane (Erigeron speciosus) that puts on a show until early September. As Pat says, cutting them back prolongs bloom time dramatically! I love mixing asters and fleabanes with Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Golden Tickseed (Coreopsis atkinsoniana) and even Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolia) that I deadheaded after it’s first set of blooms and is now back for a second showing. Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) is the ultimate fall show-off with its red trumpets until snowfall. Fall can be just as colorful as the rest of the year – even without mums!

  7. Vincent Vizachero says

    If you live near Pennsylvania, you can think of Aster ‘Purple Dome’ as a local ecotype instead of a cultivar: it was discovered growing wild in Allentown.
    Vincent Vizachero recently posted..New Post on the Downside to Biodiversity

    • Emily DeBolt says

      very interesting! thanks for sharing Vincent – I did not know that!
      Emily DeBolt recently posted..Comment on Late Summer Color at the Nursery by disease linked

      • Vincent Vizachero says

        This NY Times story from 1991 contains the origin story of ‘Purple Dome”.
        Vincent Vizachero recently posted..New Post on the Downside to Biodiversity

        • Benjamin Vogt says

          Thanks for this link!
          Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Milkweed Ethics

  8. Ellen Sousa says

    So with you on this Emily! They are everywhere and pretty much like astroturf – supports nothing! (except the growers, which is something). I do grow the single pink Mum (I always called them though because they are hardy here and as you say, they are just about the only nectar source available in late October, except for native Witch Hazel. Mums are, however, secondary to all the asters which are the glory of our garden season right now – New England Aster, New York, Swamp Aster, White Wood Aster, Heath Aster (those are the asters that grow wild on our property)…and right now the roadsides are billowing with the wild aster – love the show!

    p.s. my local nursery has begun growing their own mums in-house and they are quite proud that they are not using pesticides on them. I consider this big, and a sign of things to come…

    • Ellen Sousa says

      Oops – typo in my post – I meant to say, I always called the single pink mums “Korean Mint”, that’s what I was told by the person who gave them to me years ago…they came from the garden of an old farmhouse in Harvard, MA.

      • Ellen Sousa says

        Dammit – another typo – I need another cuppa!! KOREAN MUMS is the name of the single pink mums

  9. Denise says

    Right now, the only pollinators really active in my yard are fleabanes. They are leggy as well. Perhaps they can get hair cuts as well?

  10. Joetta says

    I like asters, but hate the ugly ‘aster ankles’ as you call them. I will be moving to Seattle and will try asters again – now in Colorado. Do you think the ‘aster ankles’ will be better or worse in the wetter environment, or no difference?

    I’m going to ‘pin’ this, so I can find it later.

    • Ellen Sousa says

      Joetta, we live what feels like a rain forest of central Mass with lots of rain and soil moisture – and the New England asters “get their ankles” here too, without fail. I think pinching back stems twice (Memorial Day and 4th of July holidays) as Pat Sutton suggested in the comments here is great advice. It should at least keep them shorter and if you position your asters behind other plants, the bare ankles shouldn’t be too visible…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Fall Frenzy

  11. MarkyD says

    I love Asters. One of my favorites is October Skies. It’s blooming right now, and grows to 24-36″. It tumbles over itself, so you don’t get aster ankles. Plus, I learned to cut it in half in mid Summer, to keep it tamed, and increase blooms. The only problem is that it is a bit invasive over time. Nothing a regular gardener couldn’t handle, though.
    I work for a landscape company that plants 1000s upon 1000s of Mums each Fall in clients beds and planters. A large quantity in Downtown Chicago(Mich. Ave included). While our designers have learned to use various other plants and accents, Asters are rarely used. Probably because they just don’t work as an annual, like Mums do. The flowers don’t last nearly as long.
    As a cottage gardener and native plant grower, I’ll take Asters over Mums in my own personal garden every time.

  12. Adam B says

    Hi Emily, great post! I’ve been looking for Asters in my local nurseries to substitute for mums. I wanted to ask you though, why would you pull up goldenrod? It is one of the native “weeds” that I do selectively allow to grow in my backyard habitat and I can’t count the number of insect pollinators visiting. Am I mistaken? Thanks again for the tip!
    Adam B recently posted..Sunday Evening Bird Walk

    • Emily DeBolt says

      Adam – yes, goldenrod is most definitely great late summer color and great for pollinators – so if you like having it in your backyard that is great. A weed is just a plant in the wrong place – and in my post – goldenrod wasn’t a part of the design of the garden referenced – so I didn’t want it there – that’s all. It is great in some gardens – like larger, more natural perennial borders – but doesn’t always fit in some other instances – especially smaller spaces where it can easily take over. Hope that answers your question – Glad that you enjoyed the post!

  13. Dee says

    Excellent post, lovely pictures! Thank you for the detailed descriptions of each Aster. I’m in a small space & will be adding them this year, I had no idea which ones to plant, there are so any to chose from. I’ve book marked this page, & I’ll be able to make a good decision on which one will work in my small yard.



  1. Five Salt-Tolerant Native Plants for Rain Gardens | Blue Water Baltimore says:

    […]  New York aster also blooms in fall, providing a rich purple color to the Autumn garden.  This aster is extremely important to our native pollinators, including bees. These can be pruned, too, if you prefer an ecologically valuable alternative to the near-useless but more common mums. […]


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