October finds me with a host of mixed emotions. On the one hand, I like the cooler temperatures, and the arrival of rain after the summer drought. On the other hand, the shortened days make me seriously cranky and cause me to turn my iPhone-controlled HUE lights on in the house earlier every day.
On the other, other hand, we all need a time out from tending our gardens outdoors, if only to catch up on our reading, housecleaning, needlecraft, photography and other pursuits that may get neglected in the height of the planting season. The garden doesn’t go quietly into that good night, however. It tends to wind up in a blaze of glory that lifts our hearts and makes us glad for the changing seasons.
There are still plants in bloom in my garden as of the third week in October, including fall monkshood, various hydrangeas, some sturdy annuals, blue gentians, some reblooming phlox and delphinium and the joyously flamboyant fall asters.
But what really makes me glad is the appearance of even more flamboyant foliage on shrubs, trees, some grasses and some perennials.
If you don’t yet have a great show of fall colour in your garden, don’t despair. Make notes for next spring when you can safely add more plants to your garden. You don’t have to just have 50-year-old maples, oaks and beeches to provide a show, either — plenty of smaller trees and shrubs put on a fabulous foliage. You can still plant now, but for best selection and a decent settling-in time, start fresh in the spring.
A few favourites to look for:
Fothergilla — This shrub has many charms, including being a spring bloomer with fragrant white flowers that please pollinators. Its autumn colour is quite delicious with many shades of red, orange and yellow contributing.
Ginkgo — Everything about the ginkgo tree pleases me, from its great botanical age — there are fossils dating back more than 250 million years — to its unique foliage and its buttery-yellow fall colour. The only drawback is that it’s a bit of a slow-growing tree, but it’s well worth having even a small one in your yard.
Japanese maple — You may need to select your variety with great care to make sure you have one suited to your garden’s growing conditions, but there are many quite-hardy varieties to choose from. Among the most lovely is the coral-bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’), which has incandescent coral red bark as well as the beautiful foliage.
Perennial grasses — These pack a double value punch. Not only do many of them bloom in late summer and hold their seedheads well into winter, but they have excellent fall colour.
The panicums (panic-grasses, switch-grasses) and little bluestem are more subtle in flowering but can display burgundy or red hues in their blades before fading to softer colours.
Northern sea oats has unique flowerheads that will last until a serious windstorm, while the silvergrasses (Miscanthus, various species) have huge silky plumes of flowers and purple, bronze or gold fall colour. Look for flame grass (Miscanthus purpurascens) for the strongest show of fall foliage colour.
Callicarpa — Beautyberry doesn’t have particularly awe-inspiring foliage colour, but what it does have is a profusion of berries that are purple — very purple. It’s one of those marginal shrubs but if you situate it in a slightly sheltered spot it’ll do fine.
Hamamelis — We have discussed the need for more gardeners to grow witch hazels, with their late-winter through spring bloom period. As an added bonus, their fall colour is glowing shades of gold through scarlet and orange.
Sedum ‘Angelina’ — This groundcover sedum is a lime-green-yellow in the summer, but with the advent of cooler weather, it begins to turn shades of bronze, deep red, rose — and it holds its amazing shades all through winter and into spring, although it may be covered with snow for a good part of that time.
Clethra — Summersweet is a later-blooming, fragrant shrub that turns a lovely yellow colour in the autumn. It looks especially fantastic planted near a witch hazel or fothergilla, where it can throw contrast onto the red-orange spectrum of those plants.
Sumac — The autumn hues of sumac, whether in the wild or in the garden, are astonishing in their variety and intensity. If you really want to make a statement, plant a few sumac near a blue spruce, where the contrast is most striking.
Burning bush — Although this species of euonymus can be weedy or even invasive in some regions, there really is nothing like it for the pure red colour of its fall foliage. Planted near a stand of Miscanthus grass, the white feathery flowerheads make the red foliage glow even more.