Extending the Healing Garden’s Season: Fall Foliage

Fall foliage season has definitely wound down here in the Hudson Valley, but other parts of the country are still in full swing, so here’s a post about extending the healing garden’s season with fall foliage (and late-blooming flowers).

Autumn crocus at the High Line

Designing for fall color is an excellent way to keep people interested in the garden long after many of those summer blooms have faded. Of course, late-season bloomers like asters, mums, blanket flower, autumn crocus (pictured above), some kinds of roses, and anemones (to name a few) are great, and all the better for pairing with bright-colored foliage like the asters and serviceberries at the High Line (below). A great book for inspiration is Late Summer Flowers by Marina Christopher.

I also think there’s something poetic, inspiring, and strangely reassuring about something burning so bright just before going into dormancy.

Below are some of my favorites. All of these photos were taken by me (Naomi Sachs) in late October in Zone 5.

Serviceberry (also called Juneberry and shadbush)

Japanese maple

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
  • Maples, especially Japanese, red, and sugar (Acer spp.) – not all maples put on a good show, so do your research before-hand
  • Black gum, or sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica) – brilliant red
  • Sassafrass – incredible range of reds, oranges, and yellows. Hard to transplant, but worth trying.
  • Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) – brilliant yellow. One of the things I miss most about living in Santa Fe, NM.
  • Gingko and honey locust are two more great trees for bright yellow splendor
  • Dogwood (Cornus florida and C. kousa, to name just two) – and those beautiful red berries that attract all kinds of birds; Cornus species is one of my favorites for multi-season interest (beautiful flowers in spring, nice foliage in summer, great fall color, red berries that attract wildlife, and a lovely form even without leaves).
  • Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) – deep red with long frothy white flowers for contrast.

Oakleaf hydrangea

Climbing hydrangea, happily co-existing with an oak, at Stonecrop Gardens

  • Sweetspire (Itea virginica, especially ‘Henry’s Garnet’); I have heard that they perform well even in part shade, which is great – many plants depend on full sun for a good show
  • Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) – yes, delicious berries AND red fall color, too.
  • Several (but not all) Hydrangea species, including oakleaf (Hydrangea quercifolia), climbing (H. anomala subspecies petiolaris). Many hydrangeas, such as oakleaf and Pee Gee, also sport blossoms that turn to soft roses and buffs in the fall, and they often stay on after the leaves have fallen.
  • Fothergilla – let’s just say “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat”
  • Most of the sumacs, including Rhus typhina – they also get nice fuzzy red seedheads that persist through the winter and attract birds.
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.) – Some kinds, like ‘Arnold’s Promise’ and ‘Jelena’ vary from year to year. Last year, mine were bright reds and oranges, this year they were much more yellow. Go figure!

Geranium macrorrhizum

Perennials, grasses, ferns
  • Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) – low groundcover; leaves turn bright red
  • True geranium (esp. Geranium macrorrhizum and G. sanguinium)
  • Hosta (leaves turn a brilliant yellow, if only briefly before they look like they’ve melted into a strange puddle)
  • Several kinds of ferns, including Dryopteris erythrosa and Osmundia regalis
  • Bergenia – gorgeous bright red
  • Most ornamental grasses. Some personal favorites for brilliant autumn display are switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), big bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and some kinds of maiden grass (Miscanthus spp.). For more inspiration on ornamental grasses, see Planting the Healing Garden: Ornamental Grasses.
Some plants have tried-and-true stellar autumn color, while others vary depending on geographic location, the amount of sun they get, and even microclimate. To make sure something is going to be as bright as the books and websites say it is, I like to visit as many gardens, nurseries, and parks as I can in my area to see for myself. I did not list burning bush and barberry for two reasons: First, they are both overused in the landscape–those of is in the trade call them “gas station plants” because of their boring ubiquity; and second, they are both invasive in the northeast because they seed prolifically (birds carry the seeds everywhere and deer don’t eat them, so they are taking over our forests).

Resources: Though googling is always an option, some good books for reference and inspiration include: Fallscaping: Extending Your Garden Season Into Autumn; Autumn Gardens by Ethne Clarke; Gardening with Foliage Plants: Leaf, Bark, and Berry, also by Ethne Clarke; The Year in Trees: Superb Woody Plants for Four-Season Gardens; The Autumn Garden; and Fall Foliage: The Mystery, Science, and Folklore of Autumn Leaves by Charles W.G. Smith isn’t so much a planting guide but looks like a really fun read. Michael Dirr’s Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs is one book I use all the time because each plant gets several images, giving you a sense of what it looks like through the seasons.

Many thanks to @yardhalf (http://www.ayardandahalf.com/) for some great suggestions on twitter! Have other suggestions for fall color or resources? Leave a comment!

All images in this post are by Naomi Sachs.