The focus of a summer garden is all about the flowers, but now that autumn is here it’s the turn of foliage to create a botanical spectacle. Leaves that have spent the summer as a green backdrop to colourful blooms are now transformed into stunning shades of ruby reds, glowing yellows and fiery oranges.
This autumn display is the result of the shortening days and cooler temperatures which tell plants that winter is on its way. Deciduous trees and shrubs and herbaceous perennials become dormant over winter and they do this by shutting down the process known as photosynthesis that turns the energy of the sun into sugars which allow the plant to grow. A green pigment in leaves called chlorophyll which is used in the process is no longer needed and as the chlorophyll dissipates it reveals other colours in the leaves.
Some plants produce more dramatic colour than others, so it’s worth selecting plants carefully if you want to have your own dazzling display.
Trees provide some of the strongest seasonal hues and even if you only have a small garden there are compact cultivars that won’t get too big.
One of my favourite trees for autumn colour is the liquidambar or sweetgum tree. It has attractive palm-shaped leaves that are some of the earliest to turn colour – hints of red start to appear in late August. Some liquidambars can make large specimens over time, but the cultivars ‘Worplesdon’ and ‘Gumball’ are good options for smaller gardens.
Japanese maples, or acers, are perhaps the most famous of all trees for their autumn colour. They also come in such a wide range of sizes, with some suitable for container growing to those that make substantial trees; some also have the added bonus of colourful stems. They need a sheltered spot with a bit of shade from strong sunshine to protect the leaves from wind and sun scorch. Because there are so many to choose from it’s a good idea to buy from a specialist tree nursery which will have a wider selection than your local garden centre.
In my garden I have Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ which is a wonderful tree from May when it’s deep wine red, heart-shaped leaves first unfurl, right through summer when the leaves provide a striking backdrop to orange and red flowers, to autumn when the leaves turn orange and yellow. Plant it so that it can be backlit by the sun and its leaves will glow like stained glass.
Shrubs and perennials
Shrubs such as dogwoods, witch hazel and the smoke bush (Cotinus) are transformed into bonfire shades too, and some perennials, which are often overlooked when it comes to autumn colour, will provide an understorey of interest.
Look out for Darmera peltata, whose rhubarb-like leaves take on rusty hues; goat’s beard (Aruncus) and Amsonia hubrichtii. Grasses such as Molinia, Calamagrostis and Panicum also provide lovely golden tones; and hardy geraniums such as G. wlassovium and G. macrorrhizum transform into scarlets and crimsons. So just because the flowers of summer are fading there’s no reason for your garden to lack colour over the coming months.
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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