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Fall landscaping: Bring out the color in your yard

Oct 8th, 2013 | Category: Growing

by Chuck McClung

Who isn’t absolutely loving all this fall color right now? Whether in our front yard or driving through the county, we are dazzled by the familiar red, bronze, yellow, orange, and burgundy tones of fall. Here are a few, quick ideas for adding a little fall foliage fun to your garden and landscape.

Most importantly, utilize contrast to help the fall colors stand out or “pop.” The brilliant, fall panoramic views we observe in the country are so spectacular, because large blocks of autumn color sharply contrast with the dark green backdrop of our native conifers.

To create contrast first note the background colors that already exist in your landscape. For instance, when planting in front of a dark brown fence, choose plants with yellow or orange fall color. If you have a yellow or cream colored house, select plants with red, orange, or bronze fall color.

Rich golden foliage contrasts well with a darker background of brown, dark green and burgundy. Striking yellow colors are found in smaller trees and shrubs like Paw Paw (Asimina), Gingko, and Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) as well as larger trees like Larch* (Larix spp.) and Birch (Betula).

One of my favorite gold plants for fall as well as winter is the Gold Thread Cypress* (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea‘). The “normal” variety can reach eight feet tall and wide, while dwarf varieties (‘Nana’) grow to about 3-4 feet tall and wide. The extremely, tough yet delicate-looking, golden fingerlike leaves absolutely glow during fall and the coldest parts winter.

Maples provide some of the best vivid, red fall colors. ‘Red Sunset’ Red Maple (Acer) is a large landscaping tree noted for its vibrant, red fall color. Other “reds” for the fall garden include trees and shrubs like Sourwood (Oxydendrum), other Maples (Acer), Burning Bush (Euonymus), Nandina, Autumn Brilliance Serviceberry (Amelanchier), and Blueberries (Vaccinium), as well as perennials like Leadwort (Ceratostigma), Japanese Blood Grass* (Imperata cylindrica), Bergenia and the native Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).

Burgundy or darker tones work best against a backdrop of lighter colors. For rich, dark, fall color try the Dwarf Korean Lilac (Syringa)*, Ironwood (Parrotia), ‘Forest Pansy’ Redbud (Cercis), Barberry* (Berberis), Forsythia, or the bold Oak Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).

In our landscapes, as in nature, the fall color in larger trees is most striking when viewed with dark colors in the background. Trees with fall foliage appear more vivid when planted along a greenbelt, forest edge, hedge, base of a hill, or in a valley. The fall color “effect” is more spectacular the larger the “blocks” of fall color.

Therefore, for the most dramatic effect, select fall interest plants that mature at the largest size your space or situation will accommodate. If you have little planting space or a limited budget select a plant that has many fall colors all on the same plant  like the native Vine Maple* (Acer circinatum), Sweetgum, (Liquidambar), Nandina*, Sumac (Rhus) or ‘Tiger Eye’ Sumac (Rhus typhina), ‘Henry’s Garnet’ Sweetspire (Clethra), Smoke Bush (Cotinus), or vines like Boston Ivy and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus).

Remember to create textural contrast with foliage as well. For example, the large angular leaves of a Oak Leaf Hydrangea contrast nicely with finely textured ornamental grasses or the above mentioned Gold Thread Cypress. However, the rounded, medium-sized, red fall foliage of Blueberries disappears amongst a backdrop of a similar type foliage like serviceberries, for instance. Blueberries would be better combined with larger leaves like a Witch Hazel.

I think my favorite tree for fall is the Katsura (Cercidophyllum japonicum). Not only do the leaves turn a bright yellowish-orangish-pink, but as the leaves change color and drop in fall the leaves perfume the air with the scent of cotton candy!

Hopefully these ideas tempt you to maximize fall color in your garden. Select fall color plants with contrast in mind. If you have deer, get informed about which plants are deer resistant. Several plants mentioned (*) are reasonably safe bets against deer browsing, while others deer love too much. Cheers!

Chuck McClung has a Master’s Degree in Botany from Washington State University and helps others solve their gardening dilemmas. He may be reached at

Published in the October 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

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