It’s deciduous trees that truly explode with vibrant colour in our autumn gardens but to see them at their electrifying best will depend on the weather. For the best autumn foliage, trees and shrubs need a wet spring and summer followed by cool but dry and sunny autumn days. Drought during the growing season and an autumnal hard frost will make the leaves drop early.
Possibly the most spectacular autumn trees are Japanese maples, which turn a beautiful crimson before dropping to produce a soft, vividly coloured carpet. They are slow growing, so are a good choice for a small garden, provided it is not blasted by cold north and east winds or so low-lying that frost lingers. To thrive, they also need well-draining acid soil. Dappled sunlight is best for the yellowleaved varieties such as Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’, which scorch easily, and purple-leaved varieties, such as ‘Bloodgood’, produce the best autumn displays when growing in sunshine.
A survivor from the dinosaur age, Ginkgo biloba is as tough as old boots and can even last for years growing in a pot on the patio. This small tree has an attractive shapely conical outline and unusual fan-shaped leaves, which resemble those of a maidenhair fern, which start out green and fade to gold as the summer draws to a close. It’s one of the last trees to lose its leaves, too. It’s drought-tolerant once established and will survive tough conditions including pollution and salt spray, so is a good choice for gardens in urban areas.
Witch-hazels are a must-have for any garden. Not only are they clothed in long-lasting, spicy-scented yellow flowers in the depths of winter, but their shroud of dark green summer leaves turn vivid shades of orange or yellow before falling in autumn. For a small garden look for Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ – it eventually becomes a vase-shaped shrub but can be grown for many years in a container.
The dogwood, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, will reliably set borders ablaze with its golden leaves in autumn and when the weather drops below freezing it will reveal an upright clump resembling a bonfire of rich orange, red and yellow stems.
Hydrangea quercifolia is another dramatic shrub. It produces enormous single or double white blooms which last for most of the summer and become tinged with pink as they age, above large oak-leaf-shaped leaves that turn brilliant red, orange, yellow and burgundy in autumn. When naked, the stems reveal exfoliating bark
for winter interest, making it a choice plant for all seasons. Grow it in a sheltered spot shaded from the hot afternoon sun and mulch to keep the roots moist. As with all hydrangeas, it’s best to leave the spent blooms on the plants to protect the developing buds during severe winter weather.
If you have a large lawn, you could consider making a feature of a stag’s horn sumach and enjoy its brilliant show when the lance-shaped green leaves turn shades of brilliant orange, red, yellow and purple. Standing naked, the shrub then reveals its picturesque branches, which have velvety red shoots which resemble the antlers of a stag. Look for the variety
‘Laciniata’, which is less vigorous and produces fewer suckers than straight Rhus typhina, which tends to send up a new shoot every time a root gets damaged. It is perfect for a prairiestyle planting scheme, partnered with ornamental grasses and perennials.
Where lawn space is restricted, snowy mespilus is a good alternative. Another shrubby tree, it is great value providing clouds of white starry blooms in spring, usually emerging on bare branches and finishing just as the copperybronze young leaves unfurl. By June the edible currant-like reddish-purple fruits begin to ripen and if the birds don’t take them all, they will last until the tree becomes a beacon of vivid oranges and deep reds.
To cover walls with a cloak of autumn colour, look no further than Virginia creeper, which turns brilliant scarlet when the temperature drops. This self-clinging climber holds on by adhesive pads and won’t damage buildings unless the masonry is loose or the shoots are allowed to get into gutters.
The crimson glory vine, Vitis coignetiae is another a high-flyer and perfect for scrambling over a sturdy pergola or garden wall. The large, heart-shaped leaves, which have a coarse texture and are deeply veined, turn bright red and create a colourful backdrop for the small, unpalatable blue-black grapes. Planting it in well-drained poor soil will help stop rampant growth.
These colourful plants will add autumnal vibrancy to a garden
Ginkgo biloba Stag’s horn
Vitis coignetiae Cornus sanguinea