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Lessons from the garden - autumn colour

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

This year in the South of the UK where I live, we have had a good autumn. The combination of plenty of sunshine, rain but not too often, a delay in the onset of cold weather and a lack of damaging storms has meant the autumn colours are gorgeous and, certainly in my garden, have lasted well. Some of the late season flowers eg Salvias (not necessarily hardy), Cosmos bipannatus (annual), Antirrhinum majus (Snapdragon, annual) and some roses are still performing in mid-November.

Trees, grasses and shrubs showing autumn colour.
While the flaming Japanese maple is dominant, many other plants contribute to the tapestry of colour.

Certain trees and shrubs are known for their rich display of reds, oranges, yellows and purples in autumn. For a smaller garden, suitable choices include Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku' (Japanese Maple), Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’, Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura), Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple' (Smoke Bush), Prunus 'Pandora' (flowering cherry) and Amelanchier lamarkii or grandiflora 'Robin Hill', providing conditions are right, while for a larger garden more statuesque trees are Nyssa sylvatica, Liquidambar styraciflua, Taxodium distichum (Swamp Cypress), Larix decidua (larch) and Acer platanoides (Norway Maple). As well as these ornamental trees, many of our hedgerow plants offer excellent autumn colour - look out for Acer campestre (Field Maple), Crataegus monogyna (Hawthorn), Fagus sylvatica (Beech), Corylus avellana (Hazel) and Euonymous alatus (Winged Spindle).

The autumn colour ofJapanese maples and white stems of silver birch.
Acer palmatum 'Trompenberg' and A. 'Osakazuki' set off by contrasting planting in a sheltered location.

While foliage that has lost its chlorophyll to reveal these bright colours may be the star of the late autumn garden, a good garden design will make use of other plants to amplify the effect. Here are some ideas for you to try out:

  • Many grasses, so useful for lightness, texture and movement, also have leaves that change colour and airy flower panicles that catch the light eg Miscanthus sinensis 'Ferner Osten', Hakonechloa macra, Panicum virgatum and Anemanthele lessoniana.

  • As well as those mentioned above, flowers that often continue into November include Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’, Persicaria amplexicaulis, Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ (Black Eyed Susan or Cone Flower), Verbena bonariensis and Chrysanthemums, with Dahlias lasting until frosts blacken their leaves.

  • Berries, fruits, hips and crabapples are abundant before they drop or birds get to them. Viburnum opulus (Guelder Rose) has vivid red berries, while those of Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’ (Beautyberry) are bright purple and Sorbus cashmiriana has clusters of white fruits.

  • Although most people think of bulbs for the Spring, there are bulbs and corms to add colour in autumn. Nerines thrive at the base of a sunny, dry wall, Colchicum (Naked Ladies) flower in shades of shocking pink for weeks and also suitable for planting in grass are autumn crocus, although mine didn't appear until early November this year. Cyclamen coum throw up small, pale pink or white flowers in later summer before the patterned leaves appear, flowering through to late autumn, when the leaves last over winter before dying back in Spring to make way for other plants.

  • Evergreen or wintergreen plants provide a contrast to the bright colours. I’m particularly keen on Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, a Mediterranean sub-shrub which self seeds in our garden, but Choisya ternata, Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary), Hebe rakiensis and Buxus sempervirens (box) also offer contrasting form. The lawn is an excellent foil for fallen leaves.

  • Be aware of the senescent (growing old) qualities of perennial plants that have flowered earlier in the year. Some plants die gracefully, rather than descend into mush or tatters, which adds another element to the planting.

Salvia, roses and cosmos in flower in November with autumn colour.
Four types of salvia, two cosmos and Rosa Ballerina in flower

Now is the perfect time to take a look at the planting design of your garden and decide where you can add (and take out) to enhance your enjoyment of your autumn garden. Be aware, however, of where the low sunlight falls throughout the day, as sun is needed to bring out the best of the vibrant foliage and, along with grasses, it looks great backlit.

All photographs taken on 17 November 2021.

Red berries from Guelder Rose and yellow leaves of hazel.
Red Guelder Rose berries against the turning leaves of hazel.

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