Secrets to Fall Color

Learn the basics for enjoying rich, beautiful colors in your backyard this fall.

For those longing for a spectacular landscape past the traditional summer display, plenty of options abound. Showstopping trees, seasonal shrubs and fall-flowering perennials can bring autumn color to your yard, as they relish the shorter, cooler days. All it takes is a little forward thinking and knowledge about the basics of fall color.

Step 1: Do Your Research

It only makes sense to choose plants known to have great fall color…ones that harbor vivid pigmentation under their green hues until cooler temperatures unleash their fall potential.

But how do you find them, especially since you’re going to buy the plants during the growing season, when they don’t show a hint of their autumn colors?

Do a little homework first. Find out which plants have the best autumnal shows…ask at the nursery, check plant tags, surf the Internet, and consult reference books or catalogs. If the plant has fall foliage worth praising, it’s sure to be mentioned in one of all of these places.

Another, more informal way is to talk to your neighbors, especially the ones who have fall landscapes you’ve admired. Ask if they can identify their fall beauties by variety, or at least direct you to the nursery where they purchased them. the advantage to this method is that you’ll already know the plant thrives in your area and shows lots of color.

Step 2: Consider the Possibilities

Whether you’re starting your landscape from scratch or updating an existing one, there are several types of plants that will award you with autumnal glory. Consider some of these familiar forms:

Fall Country LaneTrees ablaze in color in autumn make this country lane a picture perfect moment. <span class="credit"> Larry Keller</span>
Trees ablaze in color in autumn make this country lane a picture perfect moment. Larry Keller

Think trees. For many, Mother Nature’s most spectacular show is when native trees finish out the growing season in a brilliant display of fall hues. So why not follow her cue and plant some in your own yard?

Autumn, with its milder temperatures, is the perfect time to plant young trees while you’re enjoying the display of more established ones.

Whether you prefer the ginkgo’s glorious yellow foliage or the brilliant orange display of the sugar maple, there’s a tree out there with the color you crave. Some even turn multiple colors, like the sweet gum. This unusual tree follows a progression of color—first yellow, followed by orange, then red and, finally, deep purple.

Sensational shrubs. Shrubs may be the best way to fire up the fall landscape. They grow on a smaller scale than trees and are admired at eye level. Their size also means it’s easier to find spots for them in an existing landscape, and they won’t create unwanted shade. As an added bonus, you get to enjoy their spring and summer appearance before they take center stage.

And when they do leap into the autumn spotlight, dazzling us with vivid foliage, glorious berries or even remarkable flowers, it’s as though you’ve suddenly discovered an old friend’s hidden talent!

Perennial favorites. Who can resist the head-turning charm of chrysanthemums…the carefree look of goldenrod…or the colorful allure of an aster?

Fall-blooming perennials are a terrific way to liven up an end-of-the-season garden. Most are hardy and their dried seed heads provide interest in the winter landscape (as well as nourishment for the birds).

Plants, such as ornamental grass or the rose hips from spent shrub roses, provide more than just color—they also offer architectural elements that give the autumn garden added interest.

Step 3: Think Color

Autumn is all about color. So when considering it, think flowers and foliage. While both can set the scene, dazzling foliage usually spans the seasons. Barberry, ornamental grasses, burning bush and white ash are just a few of the plants whose foliage deserves an end-of-the season standing ovation.

Turn up the heat. “Hot” autumn colors, like reds, yellows and oranges, are familiar sights in the fall. These bold hues stand out in the flower bed, making the plants that boast them appear larger and closer than they are. Since these rich jewel tones effectively absorb the autumn sunlight, the intense effect make plants like sedum look more like stained glass.

Dare to be different. One of the biggest joys in savoring autumn is discovering the surprises least expected. Sometimes, the placid purples and brazen blues of ornamental kale and cabbage steal the seasonal scene. Cool hues among “hot colors”…contrasts between vibrant leaves and evergreens…and ornamental grasses that boast metallic=blue blades, topped by reddish brown cloud-like plumes, are out-of-the-ordinary fall pleasers.

Evergreen backdrops. Dark-green conifers or an arborvitae or laurel hedge make a beautiful dark wall behind colorful shrubs. Yellow or multi-hued fall displays look better than dark reds when planted against evergreens.

Step 4: Find the Right Spot

The time to think—and dream—about autumn color is in the fall. Walk around your property as the gardening year winds down and take a long, hard look. Where do you need lively, brilliant color? where would it be welcome?

Strength in numbers. Plant brilliant shrubs and fall-blooming perennials in groups, either in small gatherings or as a long hedge. When joined together, they make a much bolder statement.

Solo shows. When sited in the middle of a lawn or set off from similar-size plants, some plants, especially larger shrubs and ornamental trees, look spectacular in the fall. This is especially worthwhile if your plant of choice forms a handsome profile. The lowering autumn sun can sometimes cause some dramatic “backlighting” effects, especially in the evening hours.

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