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Using Fall Color in Your Landscape Design

Aesculus parviflora

North Carolina is a four-season state. The attraction of having mild winters but still a definite fall color display, leads many gardeners to make this area home, even if they are not originally from here.

Have you ever considered using the fall color of a particular tree or shrub in your decision about where to place it in your landscape? Most people tend to consider only the flower or leaf color that occurs in spring or summer, and if, perchance, a brilliant fall color seems particularly well-placed, the design success is most likely accidental. More deliberate attention to fall color can add a spectacular dimension to your landscape. Here are some tips.

In the Piedmont, the predominant color range of our native woodlands and fields is a pallet of yellow, gold, russet, and tan provided by redbud, hickory, beech, oak, willow, sweetgum, and others, punctuated by limited orange and red most often provided by some of our native maples, sassafras and dogwoods.

If you wish to increase the color range, consider adding Japanese maples. The green-leafed types typically turn brilliant yellow to orange, and the red-leaved types generally turn a much more brilliant scarlet or crimson. One cultivar, Acer palmatum ‘Elegans’, turns neon-orange.

Another great plant to add punctuating color is the native flame sumac (Rhus glabra), which turns an incredible, almost blinding, red. Other trees with consistent noteworthy color include blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) and Chinese sumac (Rhus chinensis ‘September Beauty’).

After choosing the color you wish to add to your landscape, the next decision is placement. Making sure that plants exhibiting the same fall color are not planted next to each other will give the landscape a more intricate look and invite closer inspection and appreciation. Arranging plants so that contrasting colors are adjacent to each other is the goal. Using evergreens either as a backdrop or foreground element can make your deciduous color selections stand out.

However, you can also design in a completely different direction. A grove of trees or shrubs with the same color range can have a soothing effect on the visitor or viewer. In this more subtle approach, the landscape is now more of a color wash, inviting the observer to turn inward with a contemplative response.

Gardeners face some challenges when planning for fall color. Depending on environmental factors, the brilliance of color can vary greatly. Trees and shrubs always have the same color range, but the clarity and intensity can change from year to year. Factors such as rainfall, timing of the first freeze, and the number of clear cold nights can all influence the intensity of colors.

Fall can be a “short” season that, after what seems to be just a few weeks, the leaves are off the trees and cold weather settles in or it may be an Indian summer when the season is a gradual, prolonged transition from summer.

If you are choosing a plant for fall color, you will also want to consider what impact it has on the spring or summer garden.

As we enter autumn take another look at your garden and evaluate how fall color is working. You may find that some adjustments can be made to make your fall garden even more beautiful.

Photo by John Monroe.

John Monroe gardens in Bahama, NC, and owns Architectural Trees, a specialty tree nursery also in Bahama.