Autumn garden ideas – what works and what doesn’t

This year’s autumn garden has taught me a lot about choosing plants for late-season colour.

Trees for autumn garden colour

The leaves of the Robinia frisia (False acacia) and the Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’ are a splendid sight in my autumn garden.

I’ve always thought of trees and leaf colour as the defining element of an autumn garden. And usually we do have good late-season leaf colour.

But the weather in summer dictates much of your autumn leaf colour. This summer has been exceptional – long, hot and dry. My leaf colour is not as good as usual, so I have realised how much shrubs and perennials contribute to a beautiful autumn garden.

Trees for autumn colour

The most magnificent tree for colour in this garden is Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’. It is stunning in spring and summer, with dark green-red leaves and fluffy clouds of flower. But in the autumn it is usually a blaze of fire-gold. This October a few branches have turned, but many of the leaves are dropping almost without changing colour.

This Cotinus leaf changes from dark green to this red, and usually eventually turns flame-coloured. For the first time in 15 years, this isn’t happening this year.

The trees in this garden have always been fantastic in autumn. But I think this means I’ve overlooked the importance of the other elements – the perennials and shrubs.

I recently interviewed garden designer and BBC Gardeners World presenter, Mark Lane. He travels around the UK a lot, and says that the long, hot summer has had a different impact in different parts of the UK. Autumn leaf colour is affected by how much sunshine and rain you get in the summer. He saw excellent autumn colour in the north of the UK, not much autumn colour in the Midlands and thinks that the South East  has been very variable.

Beautiful autumn leaves

In my garden, the leaves seem to be dropping without changing colour as much as usual.

Even here in Kent, there is good late-season tree colour in his garden, but not such vibrant hues in mine – and the two gardens are only half an hour apart.

The best flowers for autumn garden colour

Dahlias for autumn garden colour

Dahlias are great for autumn colour. The Rip City dahlia showing off its elegant outlines

Dahlias, asters (most now called symphotricum) and sedum are all flowering in my garden now. But I have missed a trick by not having rudbeckia, gaura and penstemon. Japanese anemones are often recommended for autumn colour, but ours are over.

And perhaps it’s just me, but echinacea- another oft-recommended autumn favourite – never survives long in this garden. I have just planted some persicaria, given to me by a friend, and am looking forward to their impact on next year’s autumn garden.

However several roses are on their second burst of flowering – the Bonica roses in the front garden, and Burgundy Ice in the main border.

Choose roses for their autumn colour

Bonica roses and Nerine bowdenii bulbs are two easy-care and super-reliable flowers for autumn colour in The Middlesized Garden.

Bulbs for autumn colour

We had a burst of white cyclamen earlier on in the month, but otherwise my top bulb for autumn is Nerine bowdenii. It was planted along the front wall of the house by my predecessor. In fifteen years, I’ve thinned them out once, but have otherwise done absolutely nothing to them.

Nerines for pink autumn garden colour

So shockingly neglected that I think you can even see weeds behind them, but they go on and on. But apparently they do take a few years to get established, so hang on in there if yours aren’t doing much.

Shrubs are the late-season stars

So this autumn I have really appreciated what good autumn-leaf shrubs bring to the garden. And I realise that I’ve missed a trick or two. I’ve always adored peony foliage in the spring. It emerges a glorious dark red and looks wonderful with primroses. But I hadn’t appreciated what peonies can -sometimes – bring to the autumn garden.

No autumn glory for this peony...

The peony leaves behind the stone dog aren’t really contributing anything to autumn gloriousness…

I have an unknown peony with beautiful autumn colour. And several very large peonies with no autumn colour at all. Their green leaves are just dying. Think how much more spectacular the garden would have been had I considered late-season foliage and peonies!

Peonies are a wonderful addition to the autumn garden

I wish I’d chosen more peonies for their autumn foliage as well as their flower colour. I don’t know which peony this is as it was planted by my predecessor.

Apparently Monty Don doesn’t like viburnums. It seems hard to see why not – both the viburnums in my garden make a very useful contribution in two seasons of the year. In winter, Viburnum bodnantense has delicate, fragrant pink flowers.

Viburnums for autumn garden colour

Viburnum bodnantense – wonderful autumn colour.

Guelder rose for autumn colour

Another multi-season star – Viburnum opulus or guelder rose has pretty white pompom flowers in spring and beautiful autumn colour. But it should have berries too, and I don’t know why mine doesn’t?

Hydrangeas and cornus are two more multi-season shrubs. I planted my cornus for the vivid colours of the winter stems, but am enjoying their autumn foliage too.

Cornus are good in autumn as well as winter

Cornus ‘Midwinter fire’ (left) and Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ (right) with Viburnum opulus behind.

Check hydrangeas for autumn colour before buying.

As with the peonies, some of my hydrangeas have beautiful autumn colour and others don’t. This is an oak-leafed hydrangea, probably Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen.’

Grasses in the autumn garden

Grasses really come into their own in the autumn garden and I have some in pots. But this is probably an area where I could improve.

Autumn garden colour in pots

The parterre in mid October with Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ and topiary cut box in the pots.

The most important lesson about autumn garden colour

I feel I’ve learned a very important lesson about autumn garden colour. You don’t necessarily need to plan it. All you need to do, when choosing plants for spring or summer, is to check what their autumn foliage is like too. Given the choice between a peony with good autumn foliage and one without, all other things being equal, you can get two seasons for the price of one.

Take a tour of the garden

There’s a full tour of the garden here on this video. If you just want a quick overview, fast-forward to the 30-second tour (with music) which you’ll find at 1 minute 15 seconds.

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Autumn garden colour - what works beautifully and what doesn't

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