25 of the best plants for autumn colour
- Credit: Leigh Clapp
Choose these berries, fiery foliage and late-blooming flowers to keep your garden looking vibrant into the cooler months
The warm, rich colours of autumn are a delight to savour and bring a new dimension to the garden. This season may be one of mists and quiet beauty, or intensely rich colours set against clear blue skies.
Although leaf colour is greatest when the days are sunny and the nights frosty, by planting a wide range of plants on different levels, you can ensure a final crescendo of colour as the season draws to an end. Make the most of the autumnal possibilities by considering the concepts of scale and combination.
The scope of autumn foliage, coloured stems, berries, hips, seedheads and flowers is vast – from flame reds to deep plums, vivid purples and candy pinks or bronze, gold and burnt orange hues. As well as stunning deciduous trees, which draw the eye upwards, consider underplantings of shrubs, vines and perennials that provide subtle harmonies or striking contrasts of vibrant tones.
Mother Nature ends the growing season with a flurry of colour, so it is well worth stepping out into the crisp air and paying a visit to nurseries, gardens or woodlands at this time of the year for a little bit of inspiration.
Traditionally the time to plant trees and shrubs is between November and March, as planting before Christmas allows better establishment while the soil is still warm. At Coolings Garden Centre at Wych Cross you will find showcase displays and neat rows of options, including herbaceous perennials, trees, shrubs, conifers and bedding plants.
Plant team manager Lizzie Keep says: “Look out for Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, a great winter flowering shrub with scented clusters of pink and white flowers on bare stems, autumn flowering Camellia sasanqua which can be grown in containers, Prunus ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ with autumnal leaf colour and semi-double blooms from November to March, as well as the low maintenance evergreen shrub, nandina, with vibrant leaf colour and red berries intensified in cold weather.
Scent is often overlooked in autumn, so consider Elaeagnus x ebbingei which is useful as hedging or the back of a border, or the slightly more unusual option of the Katsura tree that gives off a scent of burnt sugar and caramel.”
READ MORE: How to plan an orchard with expert advice from Sussex gardeners
Arundel Arboretum nursery welcomes autumn with dazzling colours and changing displays showcasing choices to plant now, in particular an array of shrubs, such as pieris, rhus and Virginia creeper, along with trees including the ever-popular crab apples, acers, and prunus varieties.
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Co owner Gwenda Teear says: “Our displays also feature some other great choices, including dark red flowering Skimmia rubella, purple berried Callicarpa ‘Profusion’, scented Viburnum tinus and Nandina domestica, a bamboo-like evergreen with red foliage and berries.
“We also stock a range of liquidambar, Amelanchier canadensis, a variety of maples, golden and scarlet-foliaged Nyssa sylvatica and Euonymus europaeus with its red and orange fruit. For berries I’d recommend Sorbus commixta, which has orangey red berries and yellow-berried S. ‘Joseph Rock’, Crataegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’ with red berries, Euonymus alatus for purplish-red fruit and varieties of holly.
“For great combinations for containers try Olea europaea (olives) with skimmias and nandinas. It’s a good idea to visit your local nurseries regularly to see how autumn colours change and what you like, to help make the appropriate purchase.”
Think creatively about ideas to try. Gaps in the border could be filled by dropping in potted plants. Containers can also be lovely visual punctuation, drawing the eye with some seasonal showiness, in key spots or grouped on the patio.
A large pot could even become a mini autumn to winter garden, by using a mix of plants, combining shrubs and bedding, in different layers. Autumn conjures up warm tones, sunsets, earthy terracotta and fiery hues, which work excitingly with deep pinks, cerise and purples. Throw in some deep blues to contrast or add in creams and lime to lighten and calm.
A wander around your local garden centre will reveal a selection of ready-made options to create containers or vignettes in the garden. There are lots of attractive options to design with - flowers, berries, stems, coloured foliage and the more unusual, such as ornamental cabbages, which can tolerate freezing conditions and actually improve in colour once they’ve experienced a few frosts.
You don’t need to only use ornamental plants: why not mix in some edibles as well, such as Swiss chard, kale, mustard and scented herbs? On a larger scale, if you are looking for quick impact in the garden, hunt out specimen trees and shrubs that are older and larger than the standard size.
Get the look
- Combine leaves, fruits and flowers
- Vary the scale with large and small plants
- Plan harmonies or contrasts
- The colours have greater impact against evergreen shrubs and trees
- Underplant with autumn-flowering bulbs, such as nerines, cyclamen or crocus
- Hard to beat shrubs and perennials include viburnum, euonymus, cotinus, cornus, cratageus, vitis, asters, chrysanthemums, salvias, ornamental grasses and phormiums
- Value the beauty of deciduous trees in the garden, taking care that the mature size is appropriate to your space
- Trees for autumn foliage – acer, amelanchier, crataegus, fagus, fraxinus, liquidambar, malus, nyssa, parrotia, quercus, sorbus, tilia
- Shrubs with glorious autumn foliage – berberis, cercis, cornus, cotinus, disanthus, enkianthus, euonymus, fothergilla, hamamelis, viburnum
- Top berries and fruit include sorbus, crataegus, cotoneaster, callicarpa, berberis, pyracantha, crab apple, viburnum, Arbutus unedo, euonymus, rose hips and skimmia
- Not only will berries delight us they’ll keep the life going in your garden by attracting a wide variety of fruit-eating birds and other wildlife
- In a tiny garden the best way to introduce berries may be to select boundary hedge plants, such as an espaliered pyracantha or cotoneaster, spindle, sloe or a climbing rose that produces hips
- For a larger space crab apples bring joy in spring and autumn. There are even small varieties for containers