Planning Fabulous Fall Combinations

Stop what you're doing for a moment, look out of the window, and take a long, hard look at your fall garden.  What do you see? I'm sure there are individual trees or shrubs that are breathtaking, but are they shown off to their best advantage? Do they read as random sparks here and there, or as a full blown bonfire that will burn with ever-increasing intensity for the next month?

Here are a few ideas to help you assess and improve your autumnal display based on my own observations, mistakes, and successes.

The Backdrop

Notice how the autumnal shades of red, yellow and orange are distributed throughout the border

If you find yourself always taking close up shots of individual colorful leaves, ask yourself why? Is it perhaps because that red leaved maple doesn't really stand out against the adjacent purple smoke bush for example? Color contrast and careful distribution are essential components of a really eye catching fall display. Our garden (shown above) is surrounded by mixed forest. Those dark green conifers really let the bright colors of the island border pop.

By separating a purple smoke bush and Fireglow Japanese maple, also red, with a golden conifer the two each has their personal space

Seen from another angle which again highlights the necessity of a solid green backdrop, the island border is a true four season showcase.

Temper the Heat

Since most autumnal colors are shades of red, orange, and gold it can be fun to shake things up a bit by adding cool blue or silver tones.

A blue Boulevard cypress set against the golden fall color of a Japanese maple: blue and yellow is always a winning combination

Even a simple fallen leaf can create be dramatic.

Dusky colors of Euphorbia 'Purple Preference' set off by a single, vivid orange leaf, fallen from a nearby purple smoke bush

A single leaf from the nearby Ruby Vase Persian Ironwood landed on this Blue Star juniper – a perfect garden moment.

Ruby Vase Persian ironwood is outstanding for so many reasons – the fall confetti is just one. Seen here on silver lambs ears

Playing with Texture

Looking to add something unusual? Sometimes it's just about adding an unexpected texture.

The wispy, thread-like foliage of a sterile red broom breaks up the primary color display.

The vertical form and fine texture of Shenandoah switchgrass adds another layer of interest to this autumnal vignette

Yellow shuttlecock flowers explode from a tall variety of Oregon grape, the bold holly-like leaves offering both a backdrop and textural contrast to the fiery shades in the foreground. Design by Ness Botanic Garden

Textural contrast is especially important when there is little color contrast.

The bold, burgundy leaf of a Red Dragon corkscrew hazel seen against a backdrop of wispy Arkansas blue star

Create a Picture Frame

Rather than stopping the eye, try creating a portal through which one looks, framing a more distant multi-layered scene. Mitch Evans is a superb designer in this regard – these images are from a garden he designed a few years ago.

Stunning color on a Japanese stewartia.

While the Japanese stewartia is eyecatching on its own, look how much it adds to the scene below when used to frame a pathway.

A cobblestone path etched with moss weaves through the autumnal garden designed by Mitch Evans

For a more intimate vignette, two maples and a hardy fuchsia were combined in another part of the garden.

The eye is drawn through the fiery portal to more subdued shades of a fading hydrangea and barberry. Design by Mitch Evans.

Your Challenge

Head out into the garden and photograph your favorite fall plants close up, from different angles, and from some distance away. What can you add to make them look even more beautiful next year? I'd love to hear your ideas – leave me a comment below!


You might also enjoy this older post featuring many more stunning images of Mitch's garden in Redmond, WA.

My book  Gardening with Foliage First, co-authored with Christina Salwitz includes dozens of ideas for fall combinations, categorized into sun and shade, including the two designs from Mitch's garden shown above.

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