Fall is one of our favorite seasons for so many reasons: the chill in the morning air, the orange and yellow gourds that decorate our porches, and the long-awaited arrival of pumpkin spice lattes at the Cafe. But autumn also excites us because of all the design potential in the garden, so much of which often goes untapped! Most gardeners have spring covered, but there are plenty of beautiful plants whose peak season is in the fall. With a little planning, a garden with four seasons of interest is easily within your reach. Plus, with rains on their way to help new plants get established here in the Pacific Northwest, fall is the perfect time to add a bit of color to your landscape for immediate impact.
To help inspire you, we've put together a list of some of our favorite trees and shrubs that will provide autumn interest in your garden year-after-year — whether that's through brilliant leaves, bright berries, or late-season blooms.
If you have space for just one fall-color plant in your garden, you can't go wrong with a Japanese maple. Like most maples, their leaves put on a colorful fall show in hues of yellow, orange, and red, but their modest stature makes them suitable for even smaller home landscapes. Varieties that boast burgundy foliage in the summer almost always feature scarlet to orange-scarlet fall foliage, and select cultivars like 'Bihou' and 'Sango-kaku' feature colorful bark that not only enhances the fall display, but provides a statement in the garden through the winter months, as well.
Along with their cousins the witchhazels, fothergillas are the definition of a multi-season plant. In the spring, these Southeast-native shrubs are covered in distinctive, white, brush-like flowers that give way to blue-green, scalloped leaves that hold up through the summer months. And as if that weren't enough, they keep the display going with a brilliant fall show that condenses all of the the firey autumn hues of Southern Appalachia onto one plant. It's a show that isn't to be missed!
Itea virginica is another plant hailing from the Appalachian Mountains that boasts a colorful fall show. This relatively low-growing shrub (to 4 feet) will take partial shade and feature racemes of white blooms in the early summer. When fall rolls around, their leaves turn red-to-burgundy, often persiting on the plant for some time. Over many seasons, they can spread by suckers to form large clumps — especially in moist conditions — but the plant is easy to reign back in. The classic garden variety 'Henry's Garnet' boasts improved fall color, 'Little Henry' offers the same benefit in a smaller package (to 3 feet).
Nyssa sylvatica is a beautiful tree for fall color, offering drop-dead gorgeous reds and oranges that epitomize fall foliage. The cultivar 'Wildfire' in particular offers exceptional fall foliage, in addition to new growh that emerges a glossy burgundy for added interest.
Hydrangea quercifolia is another great shrub for partial shade that we're thankful that it has made its way from the East Coast to our West Coast gardens. As one might expect from a hydrangea, it boasts beautiful, elongated clusters of white blooms in the summer, but unusually for the genus, we think it's also worth growing for its large palmate leaves! These beauties provide a beautiful texture in a woodland garden, and as it starts to cool in the fall, they take on a dark burgundy-to-red hue. And although the oakleaf hydrangea is deciduous, you'll often find a few of these gorgeous garnet leaves lingering on the plant well into the winter.
Red Twig Dogwoods
Many dogwoods feature beautiful crimson fall color, but shrubby varieties with colorful twigs like our native Cornus sericea have even more to offer, which is why we made sure to include them on this list. Their red stems continue the colorful display into winter even after they've defoliated.
Heptacodium isn't particularly well-represented in home landscapes, and we think that's a shame. While it doesn't offer much in the way of fall foliage, it doesn't need to because it offers something else: flowers. In fact, if we didn't know better, we'd say it bloomed twice — and in a different color, no less! What's actually going on is that the dainty white blooms that the tree sends out in late summer happen to be surrounded by bracts. As the flowers mature, the bracts age from green to red, and when the flowers finally fall from the tree, the colorful bracts are left behind, giving the appearence of a second bloom in early fall! Even after the tree defoliates, its peeling tan bark provides winter interest until the tree leafs out again in spring.
The combination of Pieris-like blooms and bright-scarlet leaves make the Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with this unusual tree. Hailing from Southern Appalachia where it is prized for the honey produced from its blooms, it is one of the first trees to begin showing color in the landscape, reaching crescendos of glowing scarlet. Even in its native range, it grows slowly, but the display is well worth the wait.
Callicarpa is a genus of plants that provides seasonal interest in a place you might not have considered: berries! And these aren't your typical red or dark purple fruits, either. In most cases, they are a stunning magenta that calls from across the garden, crying "look at me!" The berries on this shrub often hang around even after the leaves have turned yellow and fallen from the branches, but eventually the birds will take notice and gobble them up. That makes this a good choice for wildlife gardens, as well.
There are so many shrubs and trees to add beauty to your garden in the fall — not to mention perennials like grasses and asters — that we couldn't give them all their own spot on this list. But below, you will find a few other options that deserve some attention, too:
- Acer rubrum ‘Red Sunset’ - Beautiful red fall foliage on a larger maple
- Crabapples - Moderate fall foliage and colorful fall fruits
- Crape Myrtles - Moderate fall foliage and peeling bark
- Ginkgos - Golden yellow fall foliage (does tend to drop all at once)
- High-Bush Blueberries - Many varieties have good orange-red fall foliage
- Smoketree (Cotinus) - Brilliant fall color on a large shrub
- Viburnums - Most deciduous varieties offer fall color, like the Doublefile Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum)
If you’d like to add more fall interest to your garden but could use a little help along the way, Cornell Farm offers professional Garden Coaching and Planting Services to assist gardeners new and old. Whether you want to benefit from a fresh set of eyes on your space to imagine the possibilities or you have something in mind and just need help with the grunt work, we're here to help.