How’s your fall color game in the garden?
In the Pacific Northwest, depending on the weather, fall color can be bland or breathtaking — but I welcome either one just as happily. Partly it’s just a touchstone to mark our moment in the year, but mostly, when you know the “Big Dark” is coming — approximately four to six months of slate gray skies — you’ll hoard any color you can.
Which colors make your heart sing? I love solids in apricot yellow, cherry red and pure orange more than muted blends or variegated leaves. I like the darkest purple as an accent but find too much of it gloomy.
There’s no fall foliage I can think of that doesn’t pop next to blue. Look to evergreen foliage to add this accent. Any sunny garden has space for footstool-sized juniper “Blue Star” or 3-by-3 foot Picea glauca “Conica.” If you have room for a regal tree, try Cupressus arizonica “Blue Ice.” For shady spots, try a blue Carex (sedge) like “Blue Zinger,” and don’t forget there are darker blue undertones in some hellebores, blueberries, rhododendrons or Mahonia “Soft Caress,” that emerge next to complementary neighbors in warm colors.
Who needs plants to add blue? You could also add blue in the hardscape or décor in the form of slate pavers, a turquoise blue pot or a navy-blue bench.
If you want to add some pumpkin spice to your garden’s color palette, take this time to snap pictures of plants and combinations you’re loving in the neighborhood. If you don’t know the plant’s name, Google lens is a helpful tool. Accessed through the Google app, click on the camera symbol, and it searches the web for similar images. I’ve had the best success with plants with distinctive features. Crepe myrtles were mistaken for cherries, for instance, I assume because of the similar leaf shape, but the app nabbed silver-gilded and toothy-leaved Potentilla lineata.
For the color itself, here are a few favorites I’ve come to love:
Burning Bush Euonymous alata: Kind of non-descript most of the year, but these are some of the earliest and brightest to fire up in fall. Great for a mixed shrub border, or a come-hither accent from a distance.
Maples: so many. Acer circinatum (vine maple) rubrum, A. saccharum, palmatum (Japanese maple), especially palmatum hybrid “Red Dragon,” shirasawanum hybrid “Red Dawn” and atropurpureum and aconitfolium types.
Dogwoods, especially Kousa dogwood hybrids
Sourwood: Oxydendron sp. — bonus of contrasting ivory dangling bells in autumn
Panicle and Oakleaf hydrangeas — some very nice reds and purples.
Gingkos: Gingko sp. create such a luminous canopy of buttery fall sunshine that I bought a dwarf “Mariken” to keep in a pot by the front door. It only gets 2 feet tall, but it reminds me of dinosaurs, and oh, that color.
Birches: Betulus sp. White or blush-toned bark and bright yellow foliage. Enough said.
The witch-hazels (Hamamelis) and their cousins: in the Hamemilidaceae family — winter hazels (Corylopsis). The UW arboretum is a great place to view these right now.
Eastern Redbud: Cercis occidentalis
Golden Katsura: Cercidiphyllum japonicum — pure yellow with more heart-shaped leaves
Carpinus betulus “Fastigiata” — tiny toothed leaved turn golden yellow.
Orange - Orange/Red
Japanese Maple Acer palmatum “Waterfall”
Cercis canadensis “Forest Pansy” — a blend of orange, yellow and purple colors, but they’re vivid and distinct, with heart-shaped leaves.
Cotinus — likewise but with bold, round leaves like mouse ears.
Stewartia — mouth-watering orange-red with lovely peeling bark.
Parrotia — ironwood — beautiful bark and star-shaped leaves
Fothergilla –— another witch hazel relative with white bottle-brush flowers followed by a great foliar show.
Don’t overlook perennials for your fall color guard, either — some go boldly into that good night of winter. Perennial geranium, Geranium “Rozanne”
takes on red tones on its maple-like leaves. Amsonia hubrechtii turns a beautiful butterscotch, as do most hostas.
For some comprehensive lists, check out thepaintboxgarden.com by Janet Davis for a series of blog posts titled Fall Foliage.