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