In our parks and on our roadsides, on blustery country walks and maybe even in your own garden, leaves are starting to turn. If the wind doesn’t blow them all away first, we’ll soon be treated to a glorious display of flame reds, glowing oranges, and rich caramel yellows and browns.
The humble leaf at this time of year can arouse just as many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as the showiest flower (or loudest fireworks display), and no matter what size your plot there’s something to bring a bit of that wow factor to your own garden.
When we think of autumn it’s the trees that spring to mind first. Amelanchier, Acer, and Sorbus are all excellent choices for the smaller garden. If you only have room for one tree Amelanchier lamarckii is hard to argue with: beautiful white flowers in spring and stunning autumn foliage make it excellent value throughout the year, and it will tolerate both full sun and partial shade.
Acers are another obvious choice for autumn colour – some have permanent glorious red foliage when in leaf whereas others change with the seasons. There are numerous varieties ranging from small shrubs to large trees so see what your local garden centre has to tempt you. A good design scheme could incorporate a number of the smaller shrubs grouped together in the same border to give a variety of autumnal shades.
Sorbus (rowan) are another good option, as they combine both red or orange berries with lovely autumn foliage. A number of different varieties are widely available so you can choose a size and colouring to suit you. Sorbus commixta ‘Embley’ is a good choice for both berries and foliage, and carries the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden merit.
Lastly, don’t forget the bark: Prunus serrula has gorgeous glossy red to purple bark, and when the rest of your garden is bare it creates a stunning focal point. Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) has peeling bark which will glow in low autumn and winter sun – make sure you plant it where the rays will catch it.
Shrubs with bright stems include Cornus (dogwood) and Salix (willow) – if you have space a lovely sweep of Cornus really does look like flames flickering around the borders. Varieties to look out for are Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and ‘Winter Beauty’, and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’.
For hedging, you can’t beat the beautiful beech: the leaves turn copper in autumn and will remain on the branches all winter until the spring shoots push through, so although technically deciduous you’ll have colour and privacy year-round.
Once your main trees and shrubs are sorted, give some thought to other ways of adding colour: berries, hips, and late-flowering perennials all have much to offer. Roses are great because one plant will provide you with beautiful blooms (and hopefully fragrance) followed by a display of vibrant orange or red hips. Many varieties offer this combination, but Rosa rugosa is particularly good.
Classic autumn shrubs include Pyracantha and Cotoneaster, both with bright, bold berries. Pyracantha is ideal for training up a shady wall (it will need support so give it a trellis to get it started), and berries come in various shades of oranges, reds, and yellows. ‘Orange Glow’ is popular and widely available. Being evergreen they also get extra points for their glossy green leaves when everything else is having a long winter’s nap.
Cotoneaster is a good choice for smaller gardens, being available in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Beware though: many of these shrubs can have something of the supermarket car park about them. If this is a look you were hoping to avoid make sure you go for a wall-trained variety and keep it neat – Cotoneaster horizontalis has a good herringbone framework that is attractive even when it loses its leaves.
Late-summer perennials add vibrancy to tired autumnal gardens. After the multicoloured hues of summer a limited palette of yellows, oranges and browns seems fitting – Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan), late-flowering Kniphofia, Crocosmia, Echinacea, and Dahlia will still provide you with plenty of variety all the way from soft apricot to shimmering bronze.
The gorgeous bright annual Calendula officinalis (marigold) adds fabulous spots of orange lower down – they can be sown where they are to flower in March-April and will put on a vibrant display from June-October – spreading out the sowings will give you a longer blooming season.
With such a range of trees, shrubs and flowers available to light up the autumn garden you should find your borders ablaze this year. You might not want to venture outside for much longer, but the sight from your windows should keep you warm as the nights draw in.