Fall foilage adds colour and texture to the garden

"Fall is my favourite time of year in the garden, because the work is either done or simply isn't going to get done."

The glow of autumn illuminates the tones and textures of the garden

There are a thousand shades of green in my garden, and it creates a rich living tapestry all seasons of the year. Even in winter, the blanket of snow is punctuated by tall shrubs and small trees, sprays of persistent berries and darkened seed pods, and the tops of small pines, spruce and fir trees. It is, however, really at its best as late summer fades into fall.

The longer I garden, the less interested in the flowers I become, although I have as much weakness for showy blooms as anyone. But the blooms come and go, while the character, texture and endless hues of living green are a constant, albeit a shifting one. The amur maackia (Maackia amurensis) is a good case in point.

The leaves unfurl in the spring fuzzy and grey-green, and then mature to a brilliant bright green which stands out from across the garden, especially against a backdrop of tall dark-green willows and bright blue-green spruce. In the fall, the leaves turn a soft gold before falling, leaving a starkly beautiful dark branch structure to collect winter frosts and snows. Yes, it does flower, pretty panicles of creamy white in late summer that carry the fragrance of newly baled hay, but I would grow it even without the flowers. This particular tree is suffering in my heavy clay soil, and I will probably have to plant another in one of the sandier places on the property where the beetle-killed pine used to stand. It’s an endless cycle of life and death, and I am beginning to think my role is more to learn from it than control it (as if I could).

Fall is my favourite time of year in the garden, because the work is either done or simply isn’t going to get done (by August I don’t care any more), and there is more time to appreciate what is there. The clematis blooms came and went while I was busy, but the hummingbirds made full use of the vines to nest, perch and play war games. The plumes of the persistent seedheads are still fresh and glisten on the vines, and the occasional small bird still enjoys the shelter of the massed vines (little brown birds, that don’t sit still long enough for me to get out the bird books, even if I cared as much as I used to about identifying and naming everything.)

The seedheads of the irises, which I would have diligently pruned off in my younger days, are interesting small architectural structures in their own right, with surprising diversity in size, shape and colour, even within the 40 or so cultivars of Siberian irises (Iris sibirica) and dozen setosa irises (Iris setosa). The foliage varies, too, some still stiff and upright, others cascading gently, some starting to turn gold already. Each has its own character, its own interest, if I am there to see it. 

There is still a lot of colour, in the purples of the Schubert chokecherry (Prunus virginiana ‘Schubert’), the purpleleaf sandcherry (Prunus x cistena), purple birch (Betula pendula ‘Purple Rain’) and the dark-foliage ninebarks (Physocarpus ‘Diablo’ and ‘Summerwine’), the bright chartreuse of golden ninebark (Physocarpus ‘Nugget’ & ‘Dart’s Gold’) and spirea (Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’), meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria ‘Aurea’) and elder (Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland’s Gold’). The lower light of autumn blends these with the blues of spruce (Picea pungens cvs.) and meadow rue (Thalictrum cvs.) and iris leaves, and then the endless and endlessly variable shades of green. Green is a colour too, and one that is good for the soul, as the season winds down and the garden (and the gardener) ages. 

Barbara Rayment
gardens in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants, when not teaching the Master Gardener course or writing. The 2nd edition of her book, From the Ground Up: A Horticultural Guide for Northern Gardeners, is now available.

The following plants are hardy to the zone numbers indicated (view our climate zone chart):

Betula pendula ‘Purple Rain’ (purple birch) – zone 2 • Filipendula ulmaria ‘Aurea’ (meadowsweet) – zone 3 • Iris setosa (setosa iris) – zone 3 • Iris sibirica (Siberian iris) – zone 4 • Maackia amurensis (amur maackia) – zone 3 • Physocarpus (ninebark) – zone 3 • Picea pungens (Colorado spruce) – zone 3 • Prunus x cistena (purpleleaf sandcherry) • Prunus virginiana ‘Schubert’ (Schubert chokecherry) – zone 3 • Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland’s Gold’ (European red elder) – zone 3 • Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’ (Japanese spirea) – zone 4 • Thalictrum (meadow rue) – zone 2 depending on cultivar