Planting for Seasonal Interest – Fall Color

Witch Hazel and the Technicolor Dreamcoat

Way back in January of this year, one of my first blog postings (“Backyard Sanctuary,”  1/21/08) was about my dear little witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena,’ who was budding (and who bloomed a few weeks later…in March! How cool is that?). I wrote about that, too, in a post titled “Winter Landscapes: Planting for Winter Interest,” (3/5/08) and included a photo of ‘Jelena’ in her strange and wonderful fringed burnt-umber glory. I meant to write more about plant material this summer, but never quite got to it, and I apologize for that. I will attempt to make up for it in the dark days of winter by providing some juicy images and ideas for the spring and summer garden (the blogger’s equivalent to sitting in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa in your hands, poring over seed catalogs). 

In the meantime, it’s peak leaf-peeping season here in the Hudson Valley, and I can’t help but extoll the virtues of planting for year-round seasonal interest. Flowers in spring and summer are wonderful for all sorts of reasons, but whether you are planting for your own garden/backyard sanctuary or for a more public space such as a healing garden in a hospital, the landscape at a nursing home or retirement community, or even the grounds in a public park, it’s best to consider plants that will provide year-round interest. After all, if we’re going to appreciate the landscape for the entire year, whether by being in it or by looking at it from a window, we should plan for it to delight in every season. 

Above is a picture of our other witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’ (Jelena isn’t doing her thing yet – earlier to flower and slower/not quite as showy with fall color).  Some plants, like dogwoods (Cornus florida), are beautiful in every season – they bloom in the spring, they are a rich green in the summer, they turn a gorgeous burgundy in the fall, and then their berries last at least part-way through winter (while also attracting birds and squirrels, which is why the berries don’t usually last all winter long). Their form is also attractive year-round, especially in winter when you can really see the gracefully spreading branches.

There are many good websites to get information on designing for fall color, including and the University of Illinois Extension. Some plant databases, like the University of Connecticut’s Uconn Plant Database (go Huskies!) let you search for specific attributes like fall color – Uconn’s even lets you look for which specific fall color you want. Lots more where those came from, just Google away. 

Some good books: 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;  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. I’m sure there are more out there, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Go on, add a few to your Christmas/Channukah/Kwanzaa/Winterfest list!

Here are some tips to keep in mind for fall color (note: this posting is geared to people like me who have “seasons” – if anyone from L.A., Miami, etc. wants to submit a similar entry for their area, I’m all for it):

1. Use plants like the dogwood mentioned above that give a good show in more than one season: Shrubs and trees that bloom in the spring or summer and put on a good fall show with their foliage, and/or brighten up the winter landscape with berries, or seedheads, or bark, or an interesting form. Of course, some plants are amazing enough that they don’t have to do double, triple, or quadruple-duty. If the site is right, who would say no to a red maple in October? Still, many people tend to fall back on the old stand-bys instead of looking for the multi-season gems.

2. Think about what color the leaves turn (yellow, orange, red, burgundy, or technicolor like my witch hazel) and design for the effect with other fall foliage plants or with late-blooming perennials and bulbs – lavender asters and sepia mums look stunning next to brilliant yellow autumn leaves; yellow goldenrod (Solidago) dazzles against a backdrop of dark-red foliage. Of course, also find out when they turn – if you planned for your goldenrod-and-sweetspire (Itea virginica) combo but the flower is done by the time the shrub has turned, the effect is not quite so powerful. 

3. Try all-in-one-show plants with contrasting berries and leaves, like the spicebush pictured below (Lindera benzoin), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), some viburnums, like Viburnum dentatum, beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.), and crabapples with yellow rather than red fruit.

4. Some perennials and vines get great fall foliage, too: true geranium (geranium sanguineum‘s common name is bloody geranium because of its fall color), plumbago (ceratostigma plumbaginoides), and many ferns are some examples.

5. Don’t forget grasses! Many ornamental grasses like little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum) turn beautiful colors in the fall, and unlike those maples and that burn bright and then drop their leaves for you to rake up, grasses keep their foliage all winter long – the colors usually soften to blondes and russets, but they are still a beautiful contrast to the brown mulch (or mud) and white snow.

6. Think about the site and how it’s all going to work together – if your plants are in front of a dark building or a row of evergreens, something that turns bright yellow is going to have a lot more impact than a deep red that will get lost in the depths; if your hardscape (walls, paving, steps) or furniture is a distinct color, think about what colors of foliage will either complement that or help to set it off (and not clash – for example, I’m not wild about lavender and burgundy together, but maybe that’s just me).

7. If you want glorious fall color and you have a shady site, make sure that the plant you choose will still perform in shade – many, but not all, plants require full sun for the best display. Others (like my witch hazel above) don’t seem to care. This on-line Houston Grows article mentions a few that will perform even in shade, but there are more beyond that, too.

8. If you’re designing for any type of healthcare facility, safety comes first! Always make sure that what you’re specifying is not poisonous or thorny or otherwise harmful – those berries might look very attractive to a young child out for a stroll in the garden when she’s visiting her sibling…see more on this subject on the Therapeutic Landscapes Database Plants page, including some great links to poisonous plants databases.

9. Don’t let any of these suggestions intimidate you – most designs have at least some “bonus” or “happy accident” element. You buy a rose in the nursery because it’s blooming and it smells delicious and then you discover in the fall that it’s borne these gorgeous orange “hips” (fruit) that also attract all manner of birds and are also, should you care to harvest them, rich in Vitamin C. As with all gardening, designing for fall color and seasonal interest takes a healthy combination of curiosity, research, experience, passion, and luck.