As the PNW braced for the predicted hurricane force winds, most homeowners dashed to the store for candles, groceries and chocolate. Essentials. What did I do? Grabbed my coat, wellies and camera then ran outside between rain squalls to take photos of the garden while there were still some leaves on the trees!
I can't say that fall is my favorite time of year exactly, because I prefer warmer temperatures and that laid back vibe of summer gardening which typically means harvesting yummy fruit and vegetables and strolling around the garden with friends who stop by. But the colors of the autumn garden are outstanding – especially when you plan for them.
That's right, a fall garden doesn't just happen. One has to think about colors and textures as well as the timing of the display. Here are a few snapshots of my mid-October (pre-storm) garden to show you what I mean.
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Notice how in this photograph of my island border the dominant yellow foliage that immediately catches your eye is well spaced out. To the right is my golden locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia 'Frisia') and to the left a frothy haze of Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii). A bright gold-chartreuse conifer (Thuja plicata 'Forever Goldie')is set farther back towards the middle, flanked by contrasting deep burgundy foliage of a Grace smoke bush and Fireglow Japanese maple.
The next layer comes from the multi-colored fall foliage of the Ruby Vase Persian ironwood tree (Parrotia persica 'Ruby Vase'), orange toned spirea and blushing Lime Glow barberry. Evergreen conifers provide a deep green backdrop as well as blue carpet in the foreground.
If all the yellow and gold colors were adjacent to one another the impact would have been lost. To make this design work in autumn I had to plan ahead even when the trees, shrubs and perennials were in their spring shades. Using colored pencils on a tracing overlay of your garden plan can help you visualize seasonal changes.
With contrasting foliage textures you can achieve striking combinations even with a monochromatic color scheme as seen below.
In the photo above the finely textured Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum v. 'Shenandoah') shows up against the round leaves of a Glow Girl spirea even though both have the same color palette. Incidentally the spring-summer color of this spirea is lime green! Adding the cool grey-blue conifer (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Baby Blue') in the background is a wonderful way to emphasize the warm fall colors of the deciduous shrub and grass.
The photograph above is deceptive. It is taken from the path that runs through the island border; Red Carpet barberry can be seen in the foreground while a haze of Shenandoah switch grass and a mounding weeping willowleaf pear (Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula') are actually on the other side of the winding path.
When you looked at this photo did your eye immediately bounce from the red barberry to the red trees in the background? Those are actually almost 250' away at the entrance to the woodland border, yet from this perspective they seem to be part of the immediate scene don't they? Designers refer to this as 'borrowed landscape' and here I have specifically used it to enhance a fall scene. the two red maples (Acer rubrum) and the golden locust tree they flank, repeat the colors of shrubs in the foreground. Again, thinking ahead to the fall colors was key. If those maples had turned yellow the impact would have been lost.
Here's a close up of those trees
Now you can glimpse the understory of shrubs and grasses in this border as well as some trees which haven't started their fall display yet. A rock cairn designed by sculptor Luke DeLatour marks the entrance to this border and was a special gift from some wonderful friends.
When more is more!
Some trees are just out and out show-offs. They are outstanding no matter when you view them. Such is my love affair with Ruby Vase Persian ironwood seen here in its multicolored glory. This kaleidoscope of color needs a simple backdrop, provided here by a golden locust tree while the finely textured Shenandoah grasses are once again working with a monochromatic scheme beautifully. Another large boulder works well against the finely texture grass while Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) adds interest in the foreground (plus repeats the color yellow with its last few blooms) accompanied by the feathery yellow Ogon spirea (Spiraea thunbergii 'Ogon'). So many layers of loveliness yet it isn't too busy because there is one clear focal point – the Ruby Vase Persian ironwood.
Tips you can try
Grab your camera and photograph your garden; vignettes you like as well as those you are less satisfied with. Assess what has worked or not.
Are the fall colors evenly distributed throughout the space?
Do you need to introduce some bold conifers to anchor the autumn display?
Would boulders help to balance a lot of fine textures?
Can you take advantage of fall colors in a borrowed view from your own garden or a neighbors?
Does everything happen at once? Include early, mid and late season beauties. My fall display typically begins in September with vine maples and katsura trees and continues through the end of November with paperbark maples and purple smoke bushes.
Do you need a focal point for a fall vignette? This can be a specimen tree but here is another idea. See how the rustic pot below repeats the fall shades of a weeping Japanese maple behind it. Sometimes it's the simple things.
Fallscaping:extending your garden season into autumn by Nancy Ondra, Stephanie Cohen and photographed by Rob Cardillo (Storey, 2007)
Timber Press Pocket Guide to Japanese Maples by J.D. Vertrees and P. Gregory (Timber Press 2007) includes lists by size, fall color and much more.
Gardening with Foliage First – my NEW book co-authored with Christina Salwitz. Pre-order available now. (Timber Press, 2017) includes some STUNNING fall ideas