Fall Foliage Color

Continuing with the theme of possibilities for your autumn garden – I’d like to take your eyes off the flowers for a moment and focus them squarely on foliage – a forgotten area for too many gardeners, no matter what the season.

Another stunning Chanticleer foliage combination. Not completely hardy, but completely gorgeous until the first freeze comes.

Another stunning Chanticleer foliage combination. Not completely hardy, but completely gorgeous until the first freeze comes.

I am constantly pushing gardeners towards good foliage plants and combinations for the simple reason that blooms, however lovely, are fleeting.  If you are lucky, you get both in one package – like ‘Autumn Glow’ tricyrtis (see last post); but that’s not always the case, and like it or not, foliage takes up more space – if it’s dull, it’s hard to mask.

So, it pays to work with good (and easy) foliage plants that stand the rigors of a three – maybe even four – season garden.

These do.

[NB: Links are provided to many reputable online suppliers/retail locators, but  2016 stock is scarce this late in the season – use the links for further growing information or to create a wish-list for future acquisitions. With any luck your local independent garden center may still have stock for a late autumn planting. With temperatures cool and soil still warm, it’s a terrific time to plant.]

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FOR SHADY SITES

Dryopteris erythrosora (Autumn Fern) – The beauty of this vigorous, evergreen fern does not hinge, surprisingly, on those first two adjectives. The newest fronds unfurl in shades of orange-yellow, and whether it’s spring or autumn, those colorful fronds just keep coming. Gorgeous paired with ligularia.

Autumn fern with new and older fronds.

Autumn fern with new and older fronds.

Mahonia spp (Oregon grape) – I didn’t fall in love with evergreen Mahonia (aquifolium) until M. eurybracteata came to my attention in the form of the Southern Living Collection selection ‘Soft Caress.’  Now suddenly I’m finding a great deal to love.  However, protected from wind, the former does deserve a space in shadier gardens with adequate moisture. Grown well, it’s imposing and unusual (even though it really isn’t), and makes a terrific backdrop for other textures such as a golden false cypress.

M. eurybracteata 'Soft Caress'

M. eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’

Carex oshimensis ‘Everillo’ (Golden sedge) – What happens when the first freeze crumples all the Sunpower hosta upon whose collective back you based your front planting schemes?  Those who planted ‘Everillo’ carex instead (another SL selection) will still have foliage, color and all the attendant joys thereof.  This really is a superb sedge for part shade and still grows fairly well as the shade gets deeper. Light, texturally fine, and eye-popping color.

'Everillo' carex lights up a tropical planting in Chanticleer's Teacup Garden

‘Everillo’ carex lights up a tropical planting in Chanticleer’s Teacup Garden

Hydrangea quercifolia (Oak leafed hydrangea) – This remarkably beautiful native hydrangea is one grown for it’s large, oak-like leaves as much as its cream-to-pink panicles of flowers in mid-summer.  If mildew hasn’t taken its toll in a wet season, most are still holding onto dried versions of those flowers by autumn and begin to frame them with foliage turning glorious shades of red, orange and sometimes yellow.  I grow the species, ‘Little Honey’ (a chartreuse cultivar), ‘Snow Queen’ and ‘Pee-Wee.’

H. quercifolia

H. quercifolia

FOR SUN OR SHADE

Chamaecyparis pisifera “Golden Mop” (False cypress) – Traditionally one for the sunny garden, I have found this evergreen to excel in part shade, changing its color from a burnt out bright yellow to a relaxed chartreuse, and taking an almost Seusical approach to growth, with long threads dripping off the ends of artistic branches.

C. pisafera 'Golden Mop' exhibiting more of a golden free form in part shade.

C. pisafera ‘Golden Mop’ exhibiting more of a golden free form in part shade.

 

FOR SUNNY SITES

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ (Maiden grass) – My only criticism of this stunning grass is the fact that it is so lovely I want to use it too much, thus undermining the effect of using it as a specimen elsewhere.  Each 3-5mm white-margined blade is also striped with creamy white – which catches and reflects light – so important as the daylight hours dwindle.  If that’s not enough for you (and it should be), in autumn it’s topped with russet-red flowering plumes.

A fairly new M. sinensis 'Morning Light' making a statement in the front garden

A fairly new M. sinensis ‘Morning Light’ making a statement in the front garden

Muehlenbeckia capillaris ‘Regal Mist’ (Pink muhly grass) – This smaller (3-4’) selection is fairly non-descript in the summer garden, but bursts into foamy clouds of pink/purple in late September and is a knock-out paired with tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) or coneflowers.  Planted in great swathes (as I witnessed recently in the Gravel Garden at Chanticleer), it has the effect of making you suck in your breath, and letting it out with a great big Ahhhhhhhhhh.

M. capillaris floats throughout the gravel garden at Chanticleer

M. capillaris floats throughout the gravel garden at Chanticleer

Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ (Virginia sweetspire) – Sweetspire has sweet smelling panicles of bloom that droop lazily from strong stems in early summer, but the word ‘garnet’ in this particular cultivar should give you an idea of what’s in store foliage-wise come autumn.

I. virginica 'Henry's Garnet' Photo credit: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia

I. virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ Photo credit: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia

Amsonia hubrictii (Bluestar) – I almost feel like this one is a given, as it has been so popularized in the last few years, not least of all by the National Arboretum when it used this and native asters in a stunning planting scheme around the National Capitol Columns.  There are many amsonias (I originally fell in love with A. tabernaemontana), but I defy most of them to come up with the color goods like this one.  It can get a little pushy, and is hell on wheels to dig up, but if you find it a good situation with good drainage in full sun, it will last a remarkably long time and reward you with lovely blue flowers in spring.

A. hubrictii

A. hubrictii

Stachys byzantina ‘Helene von Stein’ (Lamb’s ear) – Just before the end of the season, I am usually cutting my standard lamb’s ear to the crown to allow for some new growth and to clean up the shabby mess.  ‘Helene von Stein’ – a cultivar with larger leaves and almost no flowering to speak of, is still looking good and can be minimally tidied without losing too much bulk in the autumn garden.  A terrific ground cover around roses, particularly those with bright scarlet blooms.

'Helene von Steine' stachys is a great contrast to berrying shrubs - particularly red ones like this 'Winter Red' ilex

‘Helene von Stein’ stachys is a great contrast to berrying shrubs – particularly red ones like this ‘Winter Red’ ilex

ANNUALS

Well, one.  But it’s pretty damn good. And it’s got several faces.

Spring planted cosmic kale still going strong at Chanticleer Garden in October

Spring planted cosmic kale still going strong at Chanticleer Garden in October

I don’t think that many gardeners think about annuals as fall foliage plants, as so many are tender and zapped by the first hard frost.  So here’s a quick shout out for that plant that has captured the public attention like no other in the last few years: Kale.

And I’m not talking about those over-used big-box autumn-fodder rosettes either. Any of these three will add a bit of pizazz to your spring, summer and fall garden – and provide a bit of righteous green munching for the health conscious amongst you.

(Just keep the BT on hand to ensure looper-free leaves.)

Redbor – Frilly burgundy red leaves.

Kosmic – Variegated (!) leaves with an excellent resistance to heat.

Red Russian – Oak-leafed, green-blue with purple veining and a purple cast.

Good foliage in the autumn garden isn’t just about autumn reds and yellows – only three of the above are listed because of their changing colors.   Sometimes it’s just about looking good.

Next time: Berries and Bulbs.

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By | 2018-02-20T20:41:02+00:00 October 21st, 2016|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.

2 Comments

  1. rusty duck October 22, 2016 at 8:45 pm - Reply

    Some fab choices. The Autumn fern does well here and yes, I’d have miscanthus everywhere! What colour on that Amsonia too.

    • Marianne Willburn October 26, 2016 at 11:24 am - Reply

      It’s hard to pick just a few, but these are easy growers and offer a lot to the three-season gardener. Some of them push well into a four-season garden too.

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