How to Design Your Landscape for Ultimate Fall Color
Fall is the perfect time to enjoy the garden. Cool weather makes the outdoors even more enjoyable, revitalizing plants after the summer heat. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss discusses designing your garden for maximum color in the cooler months.
Autumn is my favorite time of year. I live for those first hints of cooling temperatures on fall mornings. Hay rides, bonfires, and cozy sweaters are reminders of wonderful times of togetherness to come during the approaching holiday season. The warm colors of fall are the first hint that this season is on its way!
In my family, I am the holiday planner, and I love to have my friends and loved ones gather in my garden for autumn get-togethers and dinner parties. It’s just easier to enjoy the garden in the fall. Flowers seem to come back to life once the heat of summer eases up, and the waning daylight hours bring out the best in deciduous trees.
Whether you long for the peace and solitude of your yard or look forward to entertaining some company in your garden now that the mosquitoes are retreating, creating a garden full of fall color is a perfect way to make the most of your time spent outdoors. Let’s discuss designing your garden to get the maximum amount of color in the fall.
Consider Your Objective
Undoubtedly, your objective is to create a colorful space that shines during the cooler fall months. That is a great jumping-off point when selecting plants. But let’s consider some of the other aspects of gardening that will play into your decisions and the planning process.
Are you a minimalist or maximalist, or do you fall somewhere in the middle? I am a maximalist, so my garden plans typically involve fitting as many plants as possible into the space I am working on. I love a traditional cottage garden overflowing with a mixture of annuals, perennials, shrubs, and edibles mingled together as if it happened organically.
You might lean in a more modern direction if you prefer a structured look for your garden and landscape. Consider the traditional English country garden with neat rows of manicured hedges and flower beds that are orderly and organized. A tidy garden can be a stunning display, but it also requires more upkeep, so think about how much time you can invest in this garden.
You might prefer a few strategically placed flower beds to surround with large plants or trees that have wonderful fall color. This combination of styles looks traditionally striking and classic as well. Whatever your style, we can find the perfect pieces to construct a stunning fall display that will generate admiration and enjoyment.
Analyze Your Space
Stroll through your existing landscape and decide which things give you joy and which are not well suited to your space. If you haven’t done so already, find out what growing zone you are in, as this plays a significant role in which plants you can add to your garden. Think about the temperature and the amount of rain your region experiences throughout the year.
This is a good time to consider your soil type. Your soil type is essential in determining what type of plants your garden will support. If you live in a coastal region with coarse, sandy soil, you might have difficulty establishing a maple tree, but a ginkgo tree is a perfect fit. A soil test kit can give you information about your soil’s pH, which is also important for many plants.
Consider the drainage situation in your space. Make a note of areas where drainage is an issue, as these areas either need to be amended or considered when planted. Don’t give up altogether on areas with poor drainage. Plenty of lovely plants grow naturally in swamps, which is what we can look to for those low-lying areas that hold more water.
Consider the light. This is a significant factor, as many plants are particular about their lighting conditions. At a time when you will be home for most of the day, make a point of scanning your space once an hour to determine which areas can support plants that need full sun (six to eight hours), partial sun (four to six hours), or full shade (fewer than 4 hours).
Make a Plan
Drawing a map of your space is not an absolute must, but an outline is a valuable tool. Executing your plans will be smoother if you have a physical representation of your vision. You can hire a landscape architect for this task or do it yourself.
Some things to consider when creating your map or plan are:
Where are the existing structures on your property, and how would you like the garden to interact with those structures? Some spaces may stay out of sight, so they don’t need as much landscaping or attention. You want to build your garden to flow around these structures in a way that enhances rather than obstructs or clashes with movement from one area to another.
Where are the water sources in your yard? The location of spigots will influence where you plant and how long your hose will need to be. If you have an existing irrigation system, consider its reach and range. If you intend to install an irrigation system, consider where it will be most helpful in terms of your design.
Do you have or do you want to create outdoor living spaces? Determine how the landscape will best serve these spaces. These are the spaces where the most fragrant and colorful plants will be enjoyed for the longest amounts of time, so plan to place the really special plants within view of them.
Background, midground, and foreground
Depth of perspective is an essential factor in determining which plants will work together to create a balanced and cohesive plan. Consider which spaces will need larger vs. smaller plants. Think about balance, texture, and color and how you would like those things to factor into your design.
A map is a living document. It will shift and evolve as you decide which plants will and will not work in your space. It can be challenging to navigate those changes if you have your heart set on a particular thing. If there are specific plants that you have to have, denote where they will fit the best and work around them.
Select Plants That Show Off in the Fall
Creating a landscape that bursts with fall color involves adding different types of plants to the garden. By including trees, shrubs, and flowering plants that all add color, you are more likely to achieve your colorful fall garden.
Most trees bloom in spring and summer, so when choosing trees for fall color, we mainly look for foliage that changes color when the weather cools. Some trees, like Washington hawthorn and persimmon, sport brightly colored fruits in the fall. The majority of fall color comes from leaves changing color.
To say that leaves change color is not entirely accurate for most plants, although it does happen.
For most plants with color-changing foliage, the shift is caused by decreased chlorophyll production due to shorter periods of daylight. This reveals the underlying color of the foliage as the green tones decrease.
Trees by Color
Do you love fiery red? Many maple trees, dogwoods, and sumac sport this rich, opulent shade. Red oak, tupelo, and crabapple will also bring tones of red and violet to the fall landscape.
For golden tones, consider a bottlebrush buckeye tree. These are summer bloomers with big fall colors. The ginkgo tree turns the most incredible shade of golden yellow in fall. Other trees with golden undertones include some varieties of maple, birch trees, and quaking aspen.
If shades of amber and orange suit your fancy, there are some beautiful options to achieve this. Katsura melds red, orange, and yellow for a magical glow. Sassafras, hickory, and Japanese persimmon also show off in this vibrant hue. In warmer climates, crape myrtle trees transform in autumn, showing off a rainbow of warm and vibrant shades.
Shrubs make an excellent foundation for flowering garden plants. Where trees hover overhead, shrubby plants set the scene at eye level, creating a backdrop for showier bloomers. My preference for shrubs is evergreen. Evergreen shrubs endure through all seasons and build a solid foundation for other plants while maintaining their foliage even in winter.
Selecting evergreen shrubs that flower in fall is tricky, but if you can find shrubs for your climate that do so, this is a beautiful way to add pops of color to your foundational plants. Camellias are perfect for this purpose. Sasanqua camellia shrubs tend to be smaller and shrubbier than their Japonica cousins. They also typically flower in autumn, with many varieties beginning to bloom in October.
Many varieties of hydrangea bloom into the winter months. These attractive shrubs add shades of pink, white, purple, and blue to the garden, which are not typical fall colors and bring a softness to the landscape. Oakleaf hydrangea has the same characteristic; its leaves change to stunning shades of crimson and orange.
Hydrangea flowers dry on the plant and remain interesting and attractive into the later fall months. The flower color will fade, but the texture remains, making these a nice choice for fall. Some species of weigela also continue to bloom until the first frost, making them a nice foundation for the fall garden.
For shrubs with color-changing foliage, look to varieties of spirea. Some change to red, and others to soft yellow and gold shades. Viburnum will take on vibrant orange tones, and its foliage is aromatic, making it a beautiful addition to outdoor living spaces.
My personal favorite fall shrub is American Beautyberry. This shrub’s large, soft leaves will fade to pale chartreuse in autumn, and clusters of fuchsia berries ripen and entice birds and other wildlife. This shrub drops its leaves and looks a bit scraggly in winter, but it can be pruned back hard, as it will come back larger than ever during the next season, even when cut to about one foot tall.
Flowering Annuals and Perennials
For colorful fall beds and borders, the possibilities are nearly endless. There is no shortage of herbaceous perennials and annuals with fall blooming habits. If your goal is to allow your fall garden to flow from the outdoors, consider a fall-blooming cut flower garden.
Black-eyed Susans are hardy and cheerful, creating towering stalks of bright yellow blooms. Cosmos, zinnias, and amaranth bloom through the fall months, making great cut flowers or long-lasting garden blooms.
You can never go wrong with dahlias. These blooming beauties get started in early summer, and if you give them enough water to survive the summer heat, they will ramp back up and bloom until frost as well.
If you are passionate about pollinators, don’t forget that our tiny winged garden helpers need some extra fall care. This is when they prepare for migration and hibernation, so food sources are more important now than ever.
Planting solidago brings a huge pop of color to the fall garden and provides plenty of protein-rich pollen. Coneflowers, salvias, and asters are all great pollinator-support plants that continue to bloom until frost.
Don’t forget to throw in some ornamental grasses to add texture and soft shades to the fall garden. Plants like hare’s tail and little bluestem add soft movement and make wonderful additions to your cut flower arrangements as well.
Several vining plants turn stunning colors in the fall, and a wall of color makes a huge statement. ‘Red Wall’ or ‘Yellow Wall’ Virginia creeper puts on a stunning and colorful display in fall. It is fast growing and very easy to maintain as well. Boston Ivy turns scarlet in autumn and has lovely maple-like leaves.
For vines that bring other elements of color to the garden, look to American bittersweet for brilliant red berries or silver lace vine, which blooms from midsummer until frost. Its fragrant clusters of delicate white flowers make it perfect for an arbor over a pathway. Choose ornamental purple leaf grapevine for colorful leaves and deep purple fruit.
Finally, incorporate some fall vegetables into your garden to take a cue from traditional English cottage gardening. Brassicas like ‘Burgundy’ broccoli and ‘Red Acre’ cabbage are beautifully colorful and delicious.
Leafy vegetables like Swiss Chard add unexpected flashes of color. Don’t leave out pumpkins and other winter squash for more colorful vegetables in the garden and on the table. These shades of yellow, orange, green, and brown peek through leaves and create unexpected character in your landscape.
Know When to Plant
Naturally, if our objective is to have a colorful garden in the fall, we want to look for plants that either flower in the fall or have foliage that changes color during the cooler months. For annuals, you will want to pay attention to timing, as these must be planted at a specific time to achieve the desired result.
In addition to growing habits, selecting plants that will thrive in your climate zone is important. If you live in Zone 6, you probably shouldn’t try to grow tropical plants unless you plan to keep them in containers and bring them indoors in winter. Likewise, plants that need a certain number of chill hours are not suited for hotter climates that don’t experience much cold weather.
Trees, shrubs, and perennials also have specific times of year that are ideal for planting, so expect that this plan may not come to fruition immediately. Building a garden doesn’t happen in a day. It is an ongoing process, and it is important to meet each plant where and when it will thrive best. We don’t want your plants dying off because they didn’t have time to establish roots.
Consider Size and Texture
You will want to select various plants according to size, texture, and color. In terms of size, consider that a well-planned garden typically has many layers, with plants that make up the background or foundation, midground and focal points, and foreground, which includes borders, groundcovers, and herbaceous annual flowering plants.
Texture is an important element that often gets overlooked, and it can really make a difference to the balance and beauty of your garden space. Choose plants that have different leaf formations. If you have more broad-leafed varieties on your list, look for plants with airy or fernlike foliage. Look for varied leaf sizes as well. This creates more texture.
Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun when designing your colorful fall garden. Much like interior fashion and other forms of design, garden design is mostly about self-expression, beauty, and creativity. Create a space that will draw you outside into the crisp autumn air where you can enjoy the fruits of your labor.