The colorful autumn garden

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September 28, 2023

Level up your landscaping with plants bursting with fall color.

by Jay Sifford

Much of our gardening efforts center on spring and summer. Azaleas and daffodils carry us through spring into summer, at which time annuals and hydrangeas pop and shine. Our ideas generally wane going into fall, so we rely on the invasive burning bush or plant what everyone else does: mums and pansies. There are many unique and festive ways that our gardens can celebrate fall. Let’s take a look at a few of these.

Don’t overlook ornamental trees

Why gas up the family car and head to the mountains to see fall foliage when you can bring a bit of that autumnal color to your own space? Large ornamental maples such as ‘October Glory’ can elicit fall memories of Blowing Rock with its spectacular red seasonal foliage. Smaller Japanese maples bring multiseason interest to our smaller urban gardens and put on a glorious show in fall. Generally speaking, varieties sporting green warm-season leaf tones morph into yellow and orange beacons in fall. Those with red foliage generally turn a more intense red or reddish-orange. I especially enjoy placing them in close proximity to bluish conifers, as the pairing is exquisite. Gingko and American beech trees turn a glorious yellow in fall. Beeches hold their leaves throughout the winter, turning tan while providing an auditory component on a windy winter day.

Left: ‘Orangeola’ Japanese maple in fall. Right: By planting varieties of both sasanqua and japonica camellias, you can have flowers from early fall to late spring.

Shrubs that celebrate the season

Don’t cut those hydrangeas! Oak leaf and the sun-loving paniculata hydrangeas hold onto their white summer flowers as they generally morph into a soft pink that lasts well into autumn. Oak leaf hydrangea foliage turns a brilliant red with a purple overlay in fall. Planting several varieties of sasanqua camellias can provide a white, red and pink floral show from early autumn through mid-winter. 

Berries also bring seasonal color to the garden. Callicarpas, commonly known as beauty berries, shine in fall with clusters of stem-hugging, bright purple berries. These berries, in combination with the shrub’s waning yellow fall foliage, put on quite the show. If you can live peacefully with thorny shrubs, no berries are more spectacular in fall than pyracantha, also known as firethorn. Aronias, also called chokeberry, sport black berries against iridescent reddish-orange fall foliage. This is a great native substitution for the invasive burning bush Euonymous. Sumacs also hold beautiful red foliage in autumn.

Fall blooming flowers

Look past those pedestrian mums and celebrate fall in a more unique way. Asters, many of which are natives, are perennials that boast flowers visually similar to mums. An additional benefit of asters is that many feed bees and butterflies. 

Sedums such as ‘Autumn Joy’ sport heads of pink in various shades and also provide food for native bees. A mass planting of native Solidago, commonly known as goldenrod, is a magnificent fall sight. (Contrary to popular belief, goldenrod is not a contributor to fall allergies.) 

Eutrochium, commonly known as Joe-Pye, begins blooming in late summer with large heads of pink to white flowers. This plant is the host plant for the yellow swallowtail butterfly, so planting Eutrochium can seasonally transform your garden into a choreographed production starring butterflies and native bees. 

Purple Ghost’ Japanese maple and gingko give off bright pinks and yellows in their fall glory.

‘Purple Ghost’ Japanese maple and gingko in fall glory.

Amsonia hubrictii, also called narrowleaf blue star, blooms in spring but saves its most dramatic display for autumn, when its foliage turns a beautiful bright yellow with texture that is reminiscent of the tail feathers of a strutting peacock. 

Fall-blooming bulbs include colchicum, which resemble the spring-blooming crocus, and cyclamen hederifolium. For those who enjoy the florist’s cyclamen, this dainty relative with exquisitely patterned foliage will find a special place in the garden. The pink to white flowers resemble origami and are held proudly above the foliage. This plant finds its perfect home under shade trees in drier soil with good drainage. 

Tricyrtis, commonly called the toad lily, provide an exotic accent to the fall part-sun-to-light shade garden. These flowers are generally patterned white with a purple overlay. 

Challenge yourself to reimagine your garden to celebrate fall with uniqueness and style by including some of these plants into your mix.  SP

Jay Sifford is a Charlotte-based landscape designer who specializes in contemporary, Asian and transitional gardens. His work has been featured in Southern Living, Country Gardens and Fine Gardening, as well as Houzz and several books.

Featured photo: Pairing a Japanese maple such as this ‘Crimson Queen’ with a bluish conifer makes a spectacular autumnal display.

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