The key to a lively, richly colored fall garden is to make sure that it has a first-rate selection of bulbs, perennials, grasses, conifers, and, best of all, shrubs and trees that come into their own during this period. Those with an end of season ‘ flare up’ offer a rich array of purple and scarlet, with lashings of yellow and orange.
Gumballs, maples and burnt sugar
The best way to find the most colorful fall plants is to visit private and public gardens which have a superb fall show. Identify the best plants, working in layers down from the trees to the ground. A liquidambar tree, like a flaming brand at 6 m high, might be far too big for most gardens, but there is usually alively alternative.
Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Gumball’ has just as many colors but is a sensational shrubby mound, at just 2 m high.
Cultivars of the Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) can be anything from 75 cm to 8 m high and have a fantastic range of deep colors. Most commonly found in its burgundy-leaved forms which offer stunning fall tones of red and orange, but even the green-leaved types can transmute into exquisite cerise hues that rival rubies. One of the best for a medium-size garden is the slow-growing ‘Crimson Queen’, whose leaves turn reddish-purple, and it never exceeds 75 cm. If a maple does start getting too big for the fall garden, it can always be pruned to size. They look best when half the richly colored leaves are still hanging on, giving views through bare branches to the rest of the garden, and half are lying like a radiant rug on the ground.
Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Gumball’
Cercidiphyllum japonicum (katsura tree) is the fall tree with a big difference because, as well as flamboyant colors, it has the terrific scent of burnt sugar and toffee apples. In March-April it has minute red flowers. Its heart-shaped leaves unfurl bronze-maroon-fuchsia, then turn mostly blue-green until fall, when they emit a delicious burnt-sugar aroma as they turn soft gold, apricot and red (sometimes even purple) before they drop. As the leaves start to fall they release a wonderful scent in a wide radius, up to 30 m away. The katsura tree needs to be given plenty of space to grow, because it can reach 6 m high after 20 years; if space really is quite restricted, prune it to one trunk because it often produces several stems.
Grasses and perennials
The countryside in fall is largely beige and brown as grasses start to fade, and the leaves of many trees start to crinkle, die and fall. Gardens need plenty of these colors as they inject a traditional low-key feel to the end of the year. They provide an essential link between the brighter summer colors and winter.
Perennials, especially asters and chrysanthemums, may be the most familiar plants for fall garden color. There are also trees and shrubs that can brighten up your surroundings when summer’s over, some of them familiar and some unusual. Some grasses, like pampas grass, have much more style though. Cortaderia selloana has gigantic late summer and early fall feathery plumes. Most of the grasses can be left standing right through the fall and winter before being cut back to be replaced by fresh new growth early the following spring. By leaving them unpruned, you will ensure that the garden has plenty of stems and seedheads to keep it architecurally alive right to the dormant season.
Other perennials will need cutting back at the end of fall. Sedum spectabile (ice plant) flowers at the end of summer into early fall, adding pink flowers which bring the fall show of colors right down to the ground. With a wide, imaginative planting of bulbs such us colchicums, nerines and sternbergias, you can guarantee richly colored fall garden, in all hues, from the evergreens to loud bursts of magenta red with patches of soft and gentle beige.