It’s back to work, back to school – and back to getting the garden in shape for winter.
But before we clip and snip and get things bedded down we ought to be making the most of fall, while the last of the warm days are with us. Too often, gardens in this ‘twixt and ‘tween period look dreary and neglected. It’s okay if you live in Maine or Vermont or some place where the trees turn to flame. But if you live (as I do) where the winters are mild and the leaves don’t fall at all or, if they do, put on a less spectacular fall show then you need to think about putting some zap into your garden right around now.
First let’s consider the obvious candidates – the small (comparatively!) Japanese maples, the Acer palmatum with their dainty fairy-fingered leaves that turn on a spectacular red and gold show. Most gardens have room for at least one of these and they can be grown in all zones except the tropics.
Then of course there are the barberries and these make a very solid mass of spectacular color in the shrubbery, though single accent specimens look good too. In a small garden it might be best to stick to one varietal color but if you’ve got plenty of room try a range of the different leaf shades available today – when it comes to small stuff nothing beats a barberry for fiery fall fascination.
Except, perhaps, the “burning bush”, Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ which actually grows to about 10 feet and is so fiery red it almost hurts the eye. This gorgeous shrub can be pruned to keep it compact.
Other shrubs or small trees which provide the foundation for an awesome autumn every year in your garden include blueberries (there are different types for northern and southern gardens so select those that suit your zone), native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana for cooler zones to Zone 9), smoke bush (Cotinus species) and the spectacular dogwoods with their scarlet to crimson-purple leaves and red stems that make the garden glow long after the leaves have fallen. I like the variety ‘Arctic Fire’ (C. stolinifera), which doesn’t exceed 4 feet in height. There are few things more splendid than dogwood stems against a blue late fall or winter sky. For warmer climates, pomegranates; both the fruiting and purely ornamental types put on a surprisingly attractive show.
While we tend to focus on reds and yellows, bronzes and coppers for this time of year, too much of all those flamboyant shades can be a bit overwhelming. I like to break it up with some cooler contrast – Artemesia ‘Silver King’ is an excellent plant for this, as are the many varieties of euonymus with variegated leaf patterns that seem to sparkle in the chilling air of autumn – Sparkle ‘n Gold and Frosty Pearl are two varieties which will lighten up your garden well into winter.
To me, every garden is a theatrical stage in which the show is ever changing. All the plants mentioned so far provide a backdrop, and perhaps a featured player here and there. Now we want to bring the foreground to life with fuss-free foliage plants such as ornamental grasses and phormiums (New Zealand Flax) which go wonderfully with euonymus and come in the same wide array of subtle colors – pink and bronze, green and yellow, copper and gold.
All this will give you a spectacular fall garden even if you live in the south. And the overall concept is adaptable to any size garden – if you have only a small plot then try just one of each; a small tree, a tall shrub, a foreground foliage plant, using rocks and ornamental pebbles in the open space between them, if you don’t have room for grass. If you have a large garden then you can create a mass effect; trees at the back, then banks of colourful shrubs, then ornamental grasses and other small plants in the foreground, set off with an expanse of lawn.
Of course, you can add flowers to this scene if you wish. Asters and sedums such as ‘Autumn Joy’ (both great for rockeries), heleniums, nasturtiums, celosia, chrysanthemums and coreopsis are all good flowers for autumn – and when they fade and drop as the weather grows ever more chill you are still left with a palette of vivid color that will gladden your heart every time you look out of the window.