Autumn Colour in the Garden
Summer is generally seen as the most colourful season in the garden, but if choose your plants carefully there’s no reason why autumn can’t be just as vibrant. In my own garden I have borders that are a mix of hardy perennials and ornamental grasses interspersed with shrubs and tender plants such as dahlias and salvias. By creating layers of plants it’s possible to have a variety of foliage, flowers and architectural seedheads which will provide interest for months.
The ornamental grasses emerge in early summer, but as the weather turns cool the clumps of green, strappy leaves take on attractive buff and golden tones. My favourites are Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, which has a tall upright habit; Calamagrostis brachytricha whose silvery, feathery flower plumes appear in late August; and the purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea, which grows wild on the moors here in Yorkshire.
Woven among the grasses are late-flowering perennials such as penstemons which will flower for months, producing foxglove-like, tubular flowers in a range of deep, jewel-like colours and pretty pastels. The succulent Hylotelephium ‘Matrona’ is a fabulous plant with purple-green leaves and stems and flat flowerheads made up of small, star-like blooms, and Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ is another favourite, which forms large mounds of green foliage that’s studded with large, daisy-like flowers with lavender-coloured petals.
Dahlias are my go-to plant for reliable autumn colour. If you keep deadheading them they’ll keep on flowering until the first frosts blacken their foliage. I prefer to grow single, open dahlias because these are the best for pollinating insects, as they can easily access the pollen and nectar. I like to grow different dahlias each summer, using them to add different pops of colour to the main colour palette of purple, pale yellow and white. This year I’ve grown the dahlias from seed rather than from tubers. I was lucky enough to be given the seed when I visited a garden in Ireland a few years ago and I like the randomness that comes with growing them this way rather than from tubers, as I don’t know what colour they’ll be. Chiltern Seeds offers a good selection of dahlia seeds, and in autumn you can collect seed from your own plants. But if you’d like to stick to a particular colour scheme it’s best to go for tubers of named dahlia cultivars.
Hydrangeas provide a long season of interest, with the flowers first emerging in late summer. The colours tend to deepen as the flowers mature before fading to delicate papery, golden seedheads, which look fabulous when dusted with frost. Hydrangeas are unusual because their flower colour is dependent on the pH of the soil, so if you have acid soil you’ll end up with blue flowers and if the soil is alkaline the blooms will be pink. Alternatively grow hydrangeas with white flowers which aren’t affected by the pH, such as my own favourite ‘Limelight’.
Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’ is a shrub or small tree that has heart-shaped, wine red leaves. These look fabulous all summer long particularly if planted alongside a zingy orange dahlia, but my favourite time for this plant is autumn when the leaves seem to glow in the low sunlight.
Summer might be over for another year, but there’s no reasons why your garden can’t keep on looking good for months to come.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
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