Shady Characters: Awesome Astilbes

By Kerry Ann Mendez

Astilbes are the drama queens of the shade garden. You cannot help but admire these "no-fuss" divas for their beauty and grace. Their flowers can be delicate and frothy or stiff and compact, and the blooms range in color from red, burgundy, white, purple, rosy-purple, peach and various shades of pink. The handsome, fern-like foliage is a delightful contrast to heftier leaves like those of Hosta and Rodgersia, and the leaves can be shiny, matted or coarse. I like to insert additional zing to the garden by incorporating Astilbe with foliage that is bronze or burgundy tinged such as 'Delft Lace', 'Fanal', or 'Maggie Daley'.

A Full Season of Blooms

Astilbes flower for three to four weeks but by mixing early, mid and late season cultivars, you can enjoy glorious blooms from mid-June until mid-August. These deer and rabbit resistant workhorses range in height from only around 8" ('Lilliput') to spectacular back of the border giants that can reach up to 4' ('Ostrich Plume'). Astilbe 'Pumila' makes a terrific, weed-smothering ground cover with low, overlapping leaves and late season, lilac-pink flowers that top out at 10".

Providing a Rich Environment

Astilbe does best in organically enriched, moisture retentive soil. You can achieve this by simply amending soil (or mulching) with compost, aged manures or similar materials. urther boost the floral display by fertilizing with Plant-tone, a slow release, organic fertilizer. Astilbe prefers an acidic soil (pH in the high 5's or low 6's). Check soil pH by taking a sample to your local extension office or use a do-it-yourself-kit such as Rapitest. To lower pH, apply Espoma's organic Soil Acidifier (elemental sulfur).

For Shade...and Sun?!?

Even though Astilbe is typically known as a shade perennial, it tolerates full sun, as long as there is enough moisture. Those in the chinensis species are best suited for drier conditions. These beauties also make wonderful container plants. Hardy in Zones 4 to 9 (many references claim Zone 3), pollinator-friendly Astilbe provides four seasons of appeal (leave the dried flower stalks up for winter interest) with little effort on your part!

Stop in at Estabrook's today to be dazzled by almost two dozen varieties!

Kerry Ann Mendez KERRY ANN MENDEZ is an award-winning garden educator, author and design consultant based in southern Maine. Her latest book is The Budget-Wise Gardener. You'll now find her at our Yarmouth store consulting on garden design, answering your gardening questions and much more.