Autumn is a gorgeous time of the year here in Le Centre, bringing mushrooms, the grape harvest, wild game and relief from the heat of summer. It is a time of harvest festivals celebrating everything from Berry green lentils, to apples and pumpkins and, it seems, life in general. And all of this is played out against a backdrop of rich autumn colour from cultivated as well as wild trees and shrubs.
France is a good country to see truly spectacular displays of autumn colour. So often the weather is fine at this time of the year, giving the ideal combination of sunny days and cool nights. Here in the Indre, we are surrounded by forests of oak, birch, hornbeam and other trees and nearby chateau parkland hosts fine, old heirloom trees that put on a magnificent display each year.
But autumn colour is not just for grand spaces – it can be created in your own garden, giving you a display that is every bit as exciting. For many people planting in the garden often revolves around the spring and summer months – but autumn too is a time when the garden can be a place of real beauty.
Between our gardens at home and those we have planted for clients we grow a very wide selection of plants exhibiting autumn foliage colour and I am always disappointed when we are asked for a garden that is largely evergreen. When a garden does not change with the seasons, one misses out on the wonderful transformations that come with a natural landscape.
Our best area at home features both trees and shrubs with many, such as Sorbus, also carrying berries. With a background of hawthorn and hornbeam hedges, pride of place must go to the Japanese maples, of which we have four sorts including the deeply cut foliage of our old Acer palmatum atropurpureum, currently turning deep crimson. Even more spectacular is Cotinus grace, now a huge bush after five happy years with us and Euonymus europaeus Red Cascade, a variety of our native spindle bush which grows wild in the countryside and gives us both colourful leaves and fruits.
Part of the skill of a garden designer is to exploit plants to enhance seasonal effects. For me, there are two ways to use autumn colour well. The first is to scatter appropriate plants throughout the garden so that the eye is drawn from one plant to the next in a visual journey. This technique sounds simple enough but with so many other factors to consider it can be difficult to achieve without compromising other planting – having carefully created a ‘white garden’ for instance, bright red autumn colour in this same area may come as a bit of a shock. And autumn colour viewed against a background of dead and dying herbaceous plants will inevitably detract from the effect unless you cut back to clear the area around them.
When designing your borders keep autumn in mind and if you have not included something autumnal by the time you are halfway down the bed, now is the time to add something. A deciduous Berberis here, a group of Ceratostigma there, adds areas of red and orange to the scene and creates hot spots of colour throughout the garden. For those with a mature garden consider removing one or two under-performing plants and replace with a clump of ornamental grasses or perhaps a small tree such as Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis, which provides both autumn foliage and flower.
If you have the space it may be easier to take the dramatic approach – concentrating plants within a section to create an autumn garden. As leaf colour changes day by day there is little need to select specific shades when a wild mixture of plants creates the most exciting display. Given the time of the year it would be worth constructing pathways to make it comfortable to reach, while a gazebo, summerhouse or other ‘abri de jardin’ would create a cosy spot to view the colours. The Japanese often design viewing points into their gardens: a place to linger and appreciate the scene that has been carefully crafted for visitors.
While I have suggested the use of coloured foliage, there are also plants with berries and flowers at this time of the year and your autumn garden might also contain some of these to extend the all too fleeting period of display from the changing leaves. An example of this type of garden might include a tree, Liquidambar in a larger garden, Rhus or Amelanchier if space is limited. Liquidambar with its Maple-like leaves is a favourite here in France, while Amelanchier boasts attractive shrimp-pink new leaves, white flowers and black berries in addition to its bright red autumn leaf colour. Common Rhus is lovely but we have just planted the variety Tigers Eyes which promises spectacular leaf colour from a more modest sized tree.
Next we might add a shrub and Arbutus could fit the bill very well. It is evergreen and at this time of the year carries both Lily of the Valley-like flowers and fruits which resemble strawberries. More flower and scent too, could be added using rose pink Viburnum bodnatense Dawn, which will continue to give pleasure throughout the winter. Down at ground level you could try the Autumn Crocus or Colchicum, with huge pink or white flowers. Waterlily is a double variety which has given us much pleasure over the years.
In between these a few herbaceous perennials: Anemones like September Charm, and perhaps a few grasses. In our last English garden we had a huge clump of Cortaderia richardii, a form of Pampas from New Zealand, but also Miscanthus in several varieties, Pennisetum and others, all adding to the beauty of the garden with their feathery flower panicles.
While our new autumn garden is young you could fill in the gaps with some Pansies, but the allocated space will soon fill and give pleasure for years to come.
AUTUMN COLOUR FAVOURITES
I am always being asked for my favourite plants – a impossible request when I love so many and my choice changes faster than the seasons – but I will suggest a few you might like to try.
Trees for autumn leaf colour
• Liquidambar (Sweet Gum) with maple-like leaves and corky bark, leaf colour in good forms is crimson and gold. Beware of cheap seedling-grown plants which may not colour well; try Worplesdon or some other known variety.
• Quercus rubra (or Red Oak) is a large tree planted extensively in local woodlands. Best colour is on lime-free soil.
• Sorbus aucuparia Asplenifolia has both orange berries and bright red foliage in the autumn. There are many other types of Sorbus, all of them worth considering.
Shrubs for autumn leaf colour
• Acer japonicum Aconitifolium and other Japanese Maples for attractive cut foliage turning crimson. Best in a little shade.
• Cotinus coggygria Grace is a spectacular variety of the Smoke Tree, native to the south of France, with purple-red foliage turning scarlet. The leaves are translucent so if you can, position it to be viewed in the evening sun.
• Deciduous forms of Azalea colour richly with yellow, orange and crimson forms according to variety. Bright flowers in the spring, often sweetly scented. If you have the space and soil which is not chalky, grow lots!
Autumn flowering plants
• Hebe Great Orme. A superb evergreen shrub whose pink and white flowers are produced over a very long period, often to Christmas.
• Kaffir Lily, Schizostylis, a South African bulb flowering in shades of pink and ideal for a warm spot.
• Anemone hybrida Honorine Jobert with pure white flowers and yellow stamens, looking lovely next to Maples in our garden.
• Miscanthus sinensis Zebrinus. A late flowering grass with gold bands decorating the leaves. Great in cut flower arrangements.
Plants with berries / fruits
• Pyracantha is a spiny shrub often trained against walls or used as a hedge. Stunning crops of yellow, orange or red berries. The birds will thank you for it.
• Pernettya: highly decorative berries on small evergreen bushes, but only for acid soils.
• Malus. Crab Apples in a wide range of forms, but generally ideal for a small garden. I’m fond of yellow fruited Golden Hornet.
• Cotoneaster. There are low ones, tall ones, variegated plants and weeping forms. For a large space Cornubia is unsurpassed and for yellow berries match it with Rothchildianus
Ask me tomorrow and I would come up with a completely different list of favourites but I hope this brief look at the possibilities will inspire you to celebrate autumn colour in your own garden