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How to Introduce the Warm, Rich Colours of Autumn into Your Garden

How can you embrace the divine shades of autumn leaves? Through beautiful trees and shrubs

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By House & Garden | April 11, 2024 | Gardens

House & Garden UK garden editor Clare Foster discusses how to bring the glorious colours of autumn, through leaves, berries, stems and bark, into your garden each year

Shades of Autumn

The colours of autumn are so evocative. Russet, ochre and translucent crimson can look magnificent against a clear blue sky – or more importantly they can light up a dull grey day, catching the eye and cheering the heart. It is fascinating to know a little about the science behind the colour change in the second half of the year, as explained by Chris Clennett at Kew: ‘Trees, like most plants, use chlorophyll to photosynthesise…In autumn, trees that lose their leaves for winter go through a process to shut down photosynthesis and reclaim as many valuable chemicals as possible. Chlorophyll is constantly breaking down and being replaced through the summer, but the process slows down in autumn. This reveals all those other chemicals that were hidden by the presence of the dominant green chlorophyll…yellow flavonols, orange carotenoids and red to purple anthocyanins.’

For smaller gardens, it makes sense to plant a tree that also gives value at other times of year so you are maximizing the space. Image via Pexels.

Lean on Trees for Autumn Colours

In the garden, trees play the biggest part in the autumnal fanfare, so it is important to choose at least one or two that give you what you need at this time of year. Classic, fiery autumn colour comes in the shape of trees such as Parrotia persica, the ironwood tree (eventually growing to 10m), which turns beautiful shades of orange and yellow in autumn. The cultivar P. parrotia ‘Felicie’ is particularly worth looking out for, as its leaves turn vivid shades of crimson, lighting up like stained glass when the light shines through the leaves.

For Small Gardens, Maximise on Year-Round Trees

For smaller gardens, it makes sense to plant a tree that also gives value at other times of year so you are maximizing the space, and one of the most rewarding small trees is Amelanchier lamarkii (4-6m) which offers early spring blossom as well as good colour in autumn. Beth Chatto voted it her favourite small tree or shrub, declaring: ‘Good form in winter, lovely foliage in spring and autumn, prettier than many cherries – and interesting for longer.’ Another excellent all-rounder for a small garden is Cornus kousa ‘Miss Satomi’, which offers ornamental pink bracts in June, followed by rosy-pink fruits and stunning autumn foliage. Many of the Japanese acers (Acer palmatum) are similarly rewarding in both spring and autumn. Two of my favourites are ‘Sango-kaku’ and ‘Osakazuki’, both displaying superb autumn colour. ‘Sango-kaku’(6m) has deep pink young stems and striking yellow and orange autumn foliage, while ‘Osakazuki’ (4m) is perhaps the most outstanding form for autumn, with intensely coloured crimson foliage.

In the garden, trees play the biggest part in the autumnal fanfare, so it is important to choose at least one or two that give you what you need at this time of year. Image via Pexels.

Berry Shrubs and Fruiting Trees Also Work for Small Gardens

Berried shrubs and fruiting trees bring another layer of interest in autumn. Crabapples offer a long season of interest with blossom in spring and fruit in autumn, and are useful for small spaces as they form reasonably compact trees. Malus ‘Evereste’ (4-6m) is a favourite with Arne Maynard with peachy-orange crabapples that are blushed with pink, while ‘John Downie’ (3-5m) is an old-fashioned variety from 1875 with brilliant orange-red fruits that are particularly good for making crab apple jelly. Our native spindle, Euonymus europaeus, has the most beautiful clashing orange-pink berries that you will notice on woodland walks at this time of year. The cultivated form E. europaeus ‘Red Cascade’ (2.5m) is a fantastic garden plant with more prolific fruits than the wild form, and superb autumn foliage. For something a bit more exotic, look out for Calicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’, which looks almost artificial with its clusters of glossy, violet-purple berries. And finally a recommendation for a plant that is exceedingly tough and tolerant of poor conditions; the sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides, has narrow silvery leaves and fabulous rusty-golden berries in autumn that light up the landscape like beacons.

As autumn turns to winter a third source of colour is presented to us: tree bark and stems. The young stems of plants such as dogwoods (cornus) and willow (salix) are especially colourful, cut back each year to encourage new growth, and they look particularly effective en masse, as seen in the Winter Garden at Wakehurst in Sussex for example. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, as its name suggests, provides fiery colour thoughout the winter months, glowing orange at the base of the stems and crimson at the tips, while Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ is a striking greeny-yellow. The eye is also more focused on the bark of trees as their leaves drop. Trees such as Prunus serrula have shiny, peeling bark in a rich mahogany colour that becomes crimson when the light shines through the shedding layers. Other trees such as Acer davidii, the snakebark maple, have striated or striped bark to draw the eye from a distance.

So with this triple-whammy of colour, there is no excuse to hibernate and ignore the garden in autumn and winter. Plan to include as much colour as possible for the low season and you will feel uplifted every time you look out of the window.

This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK