August 17, 2006

As a youngster, I marvelled at the bright colours of Michaelmas daisies, which my parents had a fondness for, that still illuminated a few borders around the time of my October birthday. As a teenager, following my father’s early death (at the age of just 52), when I took over the family garden, I quickly built up a modest collection of these diverse autumn flowering asters, learning their curious ways and developing an appreciation of them which has not abated.

Yet only some 10 years ago did I discover Old Court Nurseries at Colwall, near Malvern in Worcestershire, a family run business celebrating its centenary this year, that holds the National Collection of Michaelmas daisies. Like the very best nurseries, it has a garden attached a two-acre village garden which, for several months, glows with colonies of Michaelmas daisies in wide, curvaceous borders.

Asters were hugely popular in Edwardian times, when Ernest Ballard began the nursery in 1906. Expanding his successful business, Ballard acquired fields nearby for trial grounds where he could grow his many seedlings, raising superb plants that won him many prizes. Ballard is largely responsible for the improvement of Aster novibelgii, the New York aster. Starting out with tall, pale-coloured varieties, he later bred shorter plants with strong colours and more shapely flowering sprays. Ballard’s long time at Colwall only began to wane during the Second World War; his fields were requisitioned for food production and, as he was in his eighties, his energy was sagging. Looking around for someone to succeed him, he invited Percy Picton to become nursery manager in 1947. At that time, Percy was working for Miss Hopton at Hagley Court near Hereford, but his experience having notched up 15 years at Gravetye Manor for the redoubtable William Robinson made him a supremely qualified candidate.

Ernest Ballard died in 1952, and Percy Picton seized the opportunity to buy the nursery from his widow a few years later; but asters, once so popular, were falling out of favour. Percy Picton’s son, Paul, who is the nursery’s present owner, remembers idle hands playing cards on Saturday mornings as staff waited for customers to appear. Happily, Percy’s eggs were in several baskets, and he survived through an interest in plants other than asters, and in carrying out landscaping work for private clients.

I was born in a garden, grew up in a garden, and continue to enjoy my work in a garden,’ says Paul Picton who, since taking over from his father in the mid 1970s, has led a revival in the nation’s love of Michaelmas daisies. Today, a late summer wander through the nursery’s garden quickly reveals the hundreds of varieties that have become so indispensable to gardeners in temperate climes around the world, with Aster x frikartii spearheading a pageant of colour that will last until the end of the year.

The soil is stiff, yellow clay (the Ballard family also made bricks nearby) and although it has been worked for 100 years, it constantly needs improving by the addition of grit and muck; Paul Picton likes to use a product called Church Meadow, which is made by a local farmer from sheep manure and composted forest bark.

The garden is dominated by its main display bed of novibelgii asters 200 individual varieties, which are both the nursery’s ‘illustrated catalogue’ and its prime source of propagating material. They look long settled in their wide, fan shaped bed, yet Paul is quick to correct me. As he explains in his book (The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Asters, 1999), ‘The aim is to grow a vigorous young plant from one shoot and? this can only be achieved if? plants are lifted and completely replanted every year.’

Although Michaelmas daisies can be found throughout the garden, Paul Picton understands that they need other things to complement them. Besides, he is a self-confessed plantaholic with horticultural interests that lie far beyond colourful perennials. His collection of trees and shrubs is notable for its variety and, in some cases, rarity.

At home, I am planting borders flanking steps leading from the recently completed three-storey, ochre-washed dovecote. Cadmium, chrome yellow and burnt orange crocosmias should thrive on these south-facing slopes and they will look all the better for having blue and violet asters scattered among them.

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or more details or for a mail-order catalogue, contact Old Court Nurseries, Colwall, Malvern, Worcestershire (01684 540416) or visitwww.autumnasters.co.uk

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on July 27, 2006