Late-flowering plants combine with bright berries and turning leaves to create a dazzling show up to the first frosts
Late-flowering plants combine with bright berries and turning leaves to create a dazzling show that will fill your garden with colour right up to the first frosts
As the garden begins its journey from the abundance of summer to the quiet of winter, it departs in colourful style. Leaves that have previously provided a green backdrop take on an eye-catching brilliance, fruit and berries ripen and deepen in hue, and late-blooming flowers brighten the borders, creating vibrant flushes among their fading companions.
In the past, old-fashioned gardening practices would have had us cutting back, tidying and pulling out by now, but we have learnt to relish this time of year and select our plants to include as many late performers as possible. A bit of voluptuous disorder is so much more interesting than an overly tidy border.
Few of us have the space to devote large areas of the garden solely to a single seasonal display, so the key to adding autumn interest is to mix things up. Consider the different layers of planting – trees, shrubs, climbers, herbaceous perennials, half hardies and annuals – and incorporate some belated bloomers in each layer. Ideally, some of these plants will have multi-season appeal. Among the trees, Japanese acers are magnificent in the autumn, but their spring foliage is equally striking. They make wonderful specimen plants for a sheltered corner, are great in containers and, should you have the space and time, will eventually make a fine grove. The crab apple (Malus) is another tree that performs well through the seasons, with blizzards of blossom in the spring followed by plentiful fruit that ripens through the summer to rich autumnal shades. Both the crab apple and rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) are invaluable food sources for wildlife – an important factor when planting for this time of year. Even trees grown primarily for early display can put on a bonus show in the autumn – magnolia seedpods are beautifully sculptural and burst open to reveal dangling clusters of brilliant scarlet seeds.
Shrubs and climbers fill the layer between trees and border: here, too, some have been flowering for months, while others have saved their star turn for now. Viburnums, in their many varieties, flower from late winter onwards, but are equally valuable for the rich colours of their autumn foliage.
Hydrangeas gradually transform from the white, pink and blue shades of summer to deeper hues ranging from green and magenta to purple. The deep plum tones of Cotinus coggygria that have given depth to the borders during the summer now become illuminated by the low-angled sun as the leaves gradually take on shades of scarlet. As does Nandina domestica, the heavenly
OPPOSITE The distinctive foliage of Acer palmatum ‘Trompenburg’ THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Taxodium distichum in autumn; gleaming fruit of Malus hupehensis; red Magnolia x loebneri ‘Snowdrift’ seedpods; pink-tinged berries of Sorbus hupehensis
Hydrangeas gradually transform from the pale shades of summer into deeper hues
bamboo, which is not actually a bamboo, but a useful compact evergreen shrub that positively glows with bright colour. The flowering dogwoods, Cornus kousa, follow their tree-smothering show of flowering bracts in late spring with autumn leaves in a medley of colours, accompanied by red strawberry-like (edible but unpalatable) fruits.
Joining these members of the cast are other shrubs that have been waiting until autumn to reveal their true glory. The foliage of callicarpa, the appropriately named beautyberry, gradually turns from green to pink and then falls to uncover clusters of small pinky-purple berries. And the spindleberry Euonymus atropurpurea transforms from a nondescript and rather straggly bush into a showstopper, its ruby-red leaves interspersed by shocking-pink seed capsules from which bright orange berries emerge. A native plant, this is a must for inclusion in a wildlife hedge.
Climbers Vitis coignetiae, the crimson glory vine, and Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Virginia creeper, are invaluable for covering walls from spring onwards, but it is now that they really come into their own as their leaves adopt their autumn finery. Both are vigorous and need to be kept under control or they will rampage through nearby trees and shrubs, but their vibrant colours are well worth a bit of judicious pruning.
In the borders, late- and long-flowering plants add another layer of colour. The palette is often richer and more intense than in high summer, with an array of rich rubies, reds, purples and deep pinks, all enlivened by yellows, oranges and golds. Herbaceous perennials cover the full colour spectrum, from the dark, moody foliage of Actaea simplex Atropurpurea through the
towering eupatoriums with their flat-topped heads of strong pink flowers to the yellow, bronze and gold of heleniums. Penstemons bloom long and late and their stems of foxglove-type bells look particularly good weaving through grasses. Then there’s Physalis alkekengi, the Chinese lantern bush, which is decidedly ordinary for most of the year but a gloriously showy performer in autumn. However, planted in a border it can be as invasive as mint, so it is best confined to a container – tucked away and then brought into the foreground for its moment of glory.
Interspersed among the perennials there are annuals and half-hardy perennials that can be relied upon for some intense splashes of colour, right up to the first frosts. Dahlias will take centre stage in the late garden as they reach their peak. Although it’s no longer considered essential to dig them up at the end of the season for storage in a frost-free place, this depends on the slug situation in your garden – it’s still worth the effort if the alternative is that emerging shoots get eaten before they can become established.
Salvias come in a wonderful range of vibrant colours and make ideal companions for grasses, but bear in mind that in a sheltered sunny spot, different varieties can range in height from half a metre to well over two metres. In all but the warmest gardens it is sensible to take cuttings of salvias for next year – the good news is that they root incredibly easily. And last, but far from least, are annuals such as zinnias and cosmos, which will continue to bejewel your borders right up to the frost that finally brings down the curtain on your garden for the year.
Dahlias are star performers and take centre stage in the late garden