Adding Fall Color With Shrubs

Sunny days and cool nights — fall is my favorite time of the year. I know as a gardener I should say spring, but for me, fall wins every time. And guess what, gardeners? Fall is a good time to observe your garden and add color to your landscape.

Walking through my local garden centers this week, I saw that they are busting with shrubs and grasses ready for fall planting. I like to think of fall as the time to note where I need to add autumn color, then plan and plant before the seasons change.

Of course, you can plant boxwoods and spruce, but let’s think about fall color. What about Oakleaf Hydrangea? This is not the familiar summer pink and blue balls. This plant has white, oblong-like flowers. As summer fades, the flowers turn from white to muted pink. The leaves also drift from dark green to red and orange shades of fall. This plant should get a heavy cut back for winter, but enjoy it through the fall before pruning.

The American Promise Witch Hazel is another bush that will give you three-season color. Early spring blooms, then foliage that turns yellow and orange in the winter. This bush can get big, really big. Know that pruning is required to keep witch hazel a manageable size for most gardens.

Size matters. Do your research — talk with the nursery professionals, read the plant tags and learn the plant’s expected size in maturity. You do not want to bring home a gallon-sized potted plant that looks good in your space now, but will grow into a 6-foot-wide and 8-foot-tall tree.

OK, you know your plant’s mature size and sun or shade needs; let’s talk about how to plant the shrubs you selected. It is now the end of September. Go ahead and put the plant in the ground. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Dig your hole two times the size of the pot the plant is currently living in.
  • Give it a head start to success by mixing a bit of the original soil (what you just dug up) with organic matter, then place a thin layer in the bottom of the hole.
  • Now, take your new plant out of the pot and loosen up the roots. My guess is they are tight and compact from living in the black plastic container. Use your hands to gently break apart the outside of the root ball, and then place it in your newly dug hole.
  • Fill in the remaining space with soil, and water generously. The width of the hole is more important than the depth. What I mean is, you don’t need to bury the shrub. Make your spot deep enough so that after adding organic matter your new plant will sit even with the soil.
  • You want the crown above ground. Finish up with a top coat of mulch to protect the roots as the temperatures drop.

A few other choices for fall color in shrubs and berries are Viburnum, American Beauty Berry with its lilac berries, and chokeberry with vibrant red leaves and black berries. And of course, the American Bittersweet. Be careful with the name on this one, because other varieties can be invasive.

Bittersweet is the vine you often see in fall arrangements. It’s recognizable because of the orange berries. Berries are green in the summer, then in early fall form a yellow husk-like layer which will open in late autumn to highlight brilliant orange berries. The bittersweet leaves will also turn yellow; it is no wonder this vine is a floral designer’s favorite.

The Red Osier Dogwood is prized for the stems, which turn red in the fall and winter. Trees and leaves in the fall is a big topic, and there is much to discuss at another time, but I can’t talk about fall color and not mention the Ginko Biloba tree I pass under on my daily travels. In the fall when the fan-shaped leaves turn golden yellow, it is the favorite part of my commute. I even get a kick out of how when the leaves fall they create a yellow path for me to follow home.

Fall days are good for the gardener and good for the garden. The soil is warm and the air is crisp. Plants love it. Use this time early in the autumn season to plan and add the appropriate colorful shrubs to your garden and you will have years of enjoyment.