The clocks have gone back and some of us just want to curl up inside and not go out again until the spring. But if you are suffering from the first twinges of that seasonal SAD thing, then go outside you must and what better to do there than a little gardening? You could do something energetic like clearing up and (if you’re allowed) having a bonfire. Or plant a tree, or some tulips, spread some muck, or just have a quick wander around (if you choose the latter you’ll be less deserving of that piece of cake and cup of tea, but at least you went outside). If you can’t even face going into the garden though, I shall tell you about some plants that you could be standing in the warm, gazing out of your window at. If you are tempted to plant any, remember that window and position them where you can see them from inside.
Fiery foliage for smaller spaces
There certainly are lots of lovely leafy shrubs and trees turning gorgeous colours all around us, but it can be hard to fit them in if you’re limited for space. Autumn leaf colour develops best in the sunshine, so try to position accordingly. Intensity of leaf colour varies each year, depending on the weather – and if it’s very windy, they’ll all fall off early. Here are my top five autumnal foliage plants for the borders:
★ Amelanchier lamarkii – this small tree/large shrub has lovely foliage in October and November, but the young leaves are a pretty copper when they first appear.
★ Fothergilla gardenia ‘Blue Mist’- a dwarf form with scented flowers in April and blue/green leaves that turn fabulously in autumn.
★ Cotinus coggyra ‘Grace’ has dark foliage turning to crimson in the autumn.
★ Berberis thunbergii – arching shrub with small, dark leaves and flaming autumn tints – hard prune in spring, as it’s the young growth that colours up best.
★ Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’ – a compact form of the plant known as ‘Sacred Bamboo’ (it’s not a bamboo), low growing, but with an upright habit and evergreen foliage that colours up red.
Berries and fruit
Just as oranges are not the only fruit, foliage isn’t the only source of colour out there. Think berries and fruit (but not oranges – more likely rock-hard quinces, hips and haws). A huge number of plants have bright berries and fruits that provide a long season of interest in the garden – if the birds and other creatures don’t eat them all (our dogs are partial to the huge, tomato-red hips on the Rosa rugosa hedge near my veg patch and can be seen grazing sheep-like along it at this time of year (I try to turn a blind eye and think to myself that they must need the vitamin C). We divide into two camps over the berry issue: some want the berries to last as long as possible (plants with unusual coloured berries – white, purple or blue are the least attractive to birds – but possibly to us too), while others love to look out at the birds merrily stripping them off as nature (and evolution) intended – birds are excellent planters of trees and shrubs, depositing seeds with a packet of fertiliser. Remember that some plants will need a mate for guaranteed berries – and the ‘daddy’ plant won’t have them. Holly is a case in point – the rather confusingly named Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Autumn King’ cultivar is actually a female and won’t have berries unless a male plant grows nearby (try ‘Silver Queen’ – which is a male of course). More fruitful plants:
★ Malus ‘Golden Hornet’ – a compact crab apple tree with long lasting yellow fruit.
★ Pyracantha – spiny evergreen wall shrub with gorgeous red or orange berries, depending on the variety. Puts up with difficult positions too.
★ Cotoneaster – lots of different varieties to choose from, all with masses of red berries.
★ Arbutus unedo – the evergreen ‘Strawberry’ tree, but don’t eat the fruits; they’re not strawberries.
★ Viburnum davidii – a slow-growing, good-natured evergreen shrub with blue/black berries.
Buds, blooms, bulbs and bracts
So some of these aren’t officially flowers, but colourful buds – persisting through the winter and then opening in the spring (try Skimmia japonica or the lime green buds of S. ‘Kew Green’) – or bracts, the bit that’s left after the flower has finished, that often looks better than the flower itself. The bracts of Hydrangeas, especially the darker Mophead types and spectacular H. grandiflora with its huge panicles, look as good fading gently through the winter as they do when they first appear. Then there’s the semi-evergreen Abelia grandiflora with tiny pale pink flowers and long-lived russet-coloured bracts. But there are proper flowers around too. If it stays mild, even Dahlias will keep on flowering – until the frosts hit them, that is, and late blooming Penstemons and Salvias may also hang on in there. Here are some more, very welcome late flowers:
★ Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ is a sweet little cherry that starts sporadically flowering in November and keeps on with little wisps of blossom appearing all through the winter.
★ Camellia sasanqua – a lovely camellia that flowers from November until the usual camellias start flowering.
★ Asters in variety – these daisy flowers will cheerfully flower on and on as if it’s still the height of summer.
★ Nerine bowdenii – a candy pink firework of a bulb that springs out in October and persists until the middle of November, looking good (if slightly incongruous) up against the tawny colours of the season.
★ Colchicum autumnale – looks like an autumn flowering crocus, called ‘Naked ladies’ because the flowers come before the leaves.
★ Cyclamen hederifolium – this is the autumn cyclamen (the spring one’s called C. coum). Grow at the base of trees or in containers.
All year interest to sprinkle among the seasonal offerings:
These are really just good companions to the plants that come and go through the seasons – stalwarts of the border, sitting there doing their thing all year round, but coming into their own when winter starts creeping in and the fairweather plants go to ground:
★ Cornus alba ‘Eleagantissima’ – a dogwood with pretty variegated foliage, turning an attractive golden colour before falling to reveal burgundy stems on the young growth.
★ Spirea ‘Goldflame’ – has ‘autumn’ coloured foliage in spring and a deeper, duskier version in autumn.
★ Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’ – they do sit there like puddings, the heucheras, but the foliage is glossy and dark and mixes really well with other plants (and in dry shade) without complaining.
★ Hebe ‘Red Edge’ – very well behaved hebe that makes a neat mound of pretty foliage (with a red edge).
★ Euphorbia amygdaloides purpurea – handsome dark foliage with lime green bracts in early spring. Works well with woodland plants.
So if you aren’t overwhelmed by the surprisingly large choice of plants for late autumn interest and can wade through a pile of fallen leaves without feeling the urge to hibernate, then you could plant a few of the hardier ones (and remember that bare rooted trees and shrubs are cheaper from November until March). It’s definitely not too late to get out there.
- words: Jo Arnell
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