Create a completely edible container for your front porch with violas, cilantro, parsley, mizuna, red mustard, Swiss chard, beets, miniature dianthus and various other leafy greens, edible flowers and cool season herbs. With so many good plants to select from, the container combinations are endless. One of my favorite herbs for fall and winter is chervil, a seldom seen member of the carrot family. It looks like lacy parsley, but packs a clean, fresh flavor with overtones of tarragon, and it makes a great substitute for tarragon in winter, when the cold weather keeps the tarragon from growing. It makes a good "filler" for a mixed planter and would look great with the bold, red foliage of beets and yellow and white viola blooms.
In the ornamental garden, various members of the huge Aster family dominate the show. Among the most popular is Michaelmas daisy or New York aster, Symphyotrichum (formerly Aster) novae-belgii. This low mounding perennial covers itself with blue, purple, pink or white flowers from September until frost, and is easy to grow in ordinary soil in full sun. The related New England aster (S. novae-angliae) offers a similar color palatte to its cousin, but on a taller plant more suited to the back of the border. These, along with most other fall asters, including chrysanthemums, will provide the best floral display and resist wind better if cut back hard before the end of July.
A less frequently seen choice is smooth aster (S. laevis). The cultivar 'Bluebird' covers itself with sky blue flowers in autumn, and tolerates dappled shade better than the other members of its genus. This and the two previous species are all native to the eastern United States and thus remain relatively free of pest or disease problems with minimal attention once they are established in the garden.
Numerous other native American asters put on a show along nearly every roadside this time of year. These include the sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, ironweed, Joe Pye weed, snakeroots, coreopsis, bidens, and several species of goldenrods. All these beautiful native asters are sometimes unfairly blamed for seasonal pollen allergies that many people experience. This is completely untrue. All the asters with showy flowers are pollinated by insects and do not release their pollen into the air. The real culprit is wind-pollinated ragweed (Ambrosia sp.), yet another member of the aster family It produces insignificant, yellow-green flowers and millions of grains of pollen from every plant. Ragweed is commonly seen blooming alongside its showier relatives in sunny, open sites with disturbed soil from late August until the first freeze. If you, like me, get itchy eyes and a runny nose this time of year, ragweed is to blame.