There are three factors that influence autumn colours in your garden.
The first is quite obvious. Choose the plants that are well known for good autumn colour. I’ll list some later in this post.
The second is often forgotten. You need to plant them in the right place. I’ll explain where that is likely to be.
But the third thing is the hardest of all to influence. It’s your weather. But get the first two right and you have a better chance of a brilliant autumn colour display, even in a bad year.
So here are 11 top plants for autumn colours, with tips on how to choose or plant them.
How autumn colours are created
Leaves are green because of the chlorophyll in them. It’s the key element in converting sunlight into the nutrition the tree needs.
But, at the end of the summer, the chlorophyll breaks down and is reabsorbed by the tree. Other elements in the leaves then become dominant, so the leaves change colour.
Leaves also contain the yellows and oranges of carotinoid, which also gives carrots their orange colour.
And they have the reds and purples of anthacyanin, which also turns apples red. Anthacyanins are more intense if there’s lots of sun, and they also intensify in bouts of cool weather. So they will be most intense when you have sunny days and cool – but not frosty – nights.
But lots of rain can dilute the effects of anthacyanins. This autumn we’ve had mild weather and more rain than usual. That’s not good for the anthacyanins in my autumn garden.
Different plants have different amounts of carotinoid or anthacyanin in their leaves. Those with high levels are the ones that will produce glorious autumn colours. There’s more detail about this here on the RHS website.
So, as you can’t control your weather, the first step to a beautiful autumn garden is to choose the right plants.
Plant in the right place
Once you’ve bought your trees, shrubs or grasses, remember that you’ll get the best autumn colours if you plant them in the right place. Generally that will be where they get enough sunshine to stimulate the reds and purples of the anthacyanins.
For example, I have the two liquidambar trees seen the photos above. It’s a tree that is famous for its autumn display.
One of my trees is a stunning mix of red and gold. The other still looks mainly green, but is losing its leaves quickly. They seem to be turning yellow and falling immediately to the ground.
The two trees are about twenty feet (around 7 metres) apart. One is in a shady, north-facing border. The other is in the sunniest spot in the garden. The liquidambar that gets the most direct sunshine is the one with the brilliant autumn colour.
The top trees for autumn colours
Trees are the first thing we think about when we’re choosing plants for a good autumn display.
- Acers (maple)
- Amelanchier lamarckii
- Liquidambar styraciflua (better for larger gardens as it gets quite tall)
- Fruit trees, such as ornamental plums and crab apples
The top tree is the acer or maple.
They are easy-going trees, but they haven’t done well in my garden, perhaps because we’ve had a series of very dry summers. They prefer neutral to acid soil. Unlike my liquidambar, they also prefer some shade. This makes a smaller acer a good choice for a town garden.
Amelanchier lamarckii or Juneberry
Amelanchier has beautiful white flowers, berries and a lovely coppery tint in autumn. It’s a good tree for a smaller garden as it often stays below 10m or 30ft in height and is quite a compact shape.
Multi-stemmed amelanchiers are particularly popular at the moment. A multi-stemmed tree is one that has been cut down to its base. Several stems then grow up, and this gives an airy feel. It also helps keep the tree to small garden size.
Liquidambar styraciflua (sweet gum)
This is a beautiful tree, but it can grow very tall – up to 60ft/20m tall. It’s generally an easy-going tree, however, and will grow in sheltered or sunny spots and in most soils.
Choose plants with more than one season of interest
When choosing trees or shrubs for autumn colour, choose a plant with at least two seasons of interest.
For example, fruit trees can be a brilliant choice because they also have spring flowers and may have fruit. Some are ornamental varieties and don’t have fruit, but they can still be very worthwhile.
Prunus (the plum family)
Prunus is the tree which grows plums, peaches, cherries, apricots and more. There are also ornamental prunus trees, which don’t have fruit.
My favourite is Prunus ‘Snow Goose’, an ornamental plum which has beautiful white flowers in spring and gorgeous autumn colours. It’s also compact (only about 15ft/5m tall) and vase shaped, so casts relatively little shade. That also makes it a good choice for small gardens. You can see other good trees for small gardens and autumn colour here.
There’s more about choosing and planting trees for brilliant autumn colour here in this interview with head gardener Stephen Herrington at Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens, which is famous for its autumn displays.
There are other factors to consider when choosing a tree. See ‘which tree is perfect for your garden’.
The best shrubs for brilliant autumn colours
- Viburnum opulus
- Viburnum bodnantense
- Cotinus coggyria (smokebush)
- Cornus (dogwoods)
- Euonymus (especially ‘alatus’ and ‘Europaeus’)
I have two viburnums in this garden. Both have good autumn foliage and a second season of interest with flowers. Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ has pretty pale pink flowers throughout the winter.
And Viburnum opulus, otherwise known as the snowball bush, has big puffs of white flowers in spring. A word of warning with Viburnum opulus, however. There are two types. One has red berries in autumn, which would be a lovely addition. The other is the sterile form, which doesn’t have berries.
Sadly, I didn’t know this when I bought it, so I have the sterile form. I still love its spring flowers and autumn colours, but am sorry to miss the berries. You can tell which is which from the label – the sterile form is called Viburnum opulus ‘Sterile Roseum’.
Cotinus coggyria or smokebush
Cotinus is an extraordinary plant with amazing purple foliage. It turns into a rainbow of colours in autumn. You can coppice cotinus by cutting it back almost to the ground every year, in order to enjoy the fresh new foliage. Or you can let it grow into a large bush or, as in my garden, almost a small tree.
Hydrangeas – especially hydrangea quercifolia
While sunshine stimulates the reds and purples of anthacyanins in leaves, some plants can turn a good colour in some shade. Hydrangeas often have good autumn colour and they are usually happiest in part shade.
Hydrangea quercifolia or oakleaf hydrangea is a plant that is happy with more sunshine than most hydrangeas. It has very good autumn colours.
Other hydrangeas with beautiful leaf changes in autumn include Hydrangea aspera ‘Hot Chocolate’, which turns a very good red in my garden, even though it is planted in quite a shady spot.
See here for more about choosing hydrangeas, including recommendations for those with good autumn colour.
Cornus (dogwoods) and Euonymus (spindle)
Last autumn I visited the beautiful gardens at Gravetye Manor. I asked head gardener, Tom Coward, for six top shrubs for autumn colour.
He suggested several kinds of dogwoods, which are magnificent at Gravetye.
And he also named Euonymus alatus, which is a dazzling red with brilliant clashing berries. Euonymus Europaeus is also stunning for late season colour.
I have some Cornus ‘Midwinter fire’ in my garden, which I have planted in front of a silver birch. I’ve planned this to enjoy the bright colours of the stems when they are bare in winter. However, planting cornus under the shade of a tree means that there’s less sunshine to stimulate the anthacyanins, so its autumn leaf colours are not so good.
Use grasses to add to your autumn colours
Don’t restrict your autumn colour scheme to foliage. Ornamental grasses can play a real part in creating a brilliant autumn display. Several types go red or orange before turning to brown and adding structure and movement to your winter garden.
I have four Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ in pots. They stripe in gold and red from September onwards. Then they’re brown from around mid-winter to mid spring. Then I cut them back, and they sprout back to green again.
Grasses are often very easy care. Often all they need is to be cut back once a year, and divided every few years.
Other good autumn colour grasses include some miscanthus, Hakenochloa macra and Fountain grass (Pennisetum ‘Rubrum’.)
You can see more beautiful autumn colours and expert gardening tips in this interview with Jane Moore, head gardener at the Bath Priory Hotel.
National Garden Scheme handbook offer for Middlesized Garden readers
The NGS is offering £3 off its famous ‘yellow book’ guide book for 2022. It has over 3,500 gardens around the country in it, many of which are not normally open to the public. Normally £14.99 (+ postage), it’s £11.99 (+ postage) to Middlesized Garden readers if you buy it via the NGS online shop, quoting TMSG22 at checkout.
An inspirational and immersive gardening book…
I’ve been sent a big, immersive coffee table book called The Kinfolk Garden to review. It’s been a worldwide cult best-seller. Written by John Burns, who runs the Kinfolk magazine, its about and aimed at a global creative community. The Kinfolk Garden is a collection of stories about gardens around the world, mainly created by people looking for something different (and who have the time and money to achieve it).
The Kinfolk aesthetic has been described as ‘minimalistic’. However, The Kinfolk Garden is much richer, more layered and more eclectic than that. Its gardens range from rooftops in Paris and Copenhagen to space carved out of the Californian desert, from a tropical inspired garden in Tokyo to a surrealist garden in Mexico. There are house plant specialists, ‘flower arranging’ consisting of a single bloom and gardens that look like a wilderness.
There are no herbaceous borders or classical statuary in this book. Instead there are gnarled roots, boulders and interesting foliage. And above all, it is a series of stories about the people who have created gardens and why they created them, rather than about the gardens themselves.
A good present for anyone who loves contemporary style or wants to do something different in their garden.
Pin to remember autumn colours for the garden
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