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One Mercantile

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Garden: Fall Is Not Just A Tree Thing

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey.


You don’t need me to tell you that summer is taking a bow and making room on the stage for fall. Not only is Labor Day in our rear view mirror, but a drive down any of our scenic roadways reveals swamp maples that are already blood red, and other trees that are starting to blush. 

Living in the northeast, it’s hard not to talk about the fall foliage. It’s more than just a part of our landscape — it’s a means of tourism and revenue as we invite “peepers” here year after year to share in the splendor of one of nature’s greatest shows.

But why do trees get all the glory? Can we bring our gaze down from the treetops and into the garden for a second? After all, trees are not the only living things with leaves and there are plenty of other plants that boast fall color as one of their defining characteristics. When it comes to choosing plants and planning your garden, taking this into consideration is an absolute must, especially if you’re someone like me who tries to squeeze every last drop of color out of the landscape before the snows of winter settle in. Below are some of my favorite, easy-to-grow woody shrubs that offer a real bang for your buck in the fall foliage department.

Fothergilla – This is, by far, one of my favorite plants and one that I’ve talked about before. For me, this woody shrub bookends the season by sporting fluffy white flowers in the very early spring and then stunning foliage in the fall. What’s especially nice is that the fiery orange and crimson leaves of Fothergilla stay on the shrub late so that when everything else has lost its leaves, this shrub is still taking your breath away.

Witch hazel

Witch hazel – A cousin of Fothergilla, witch hazel shares many of its best traits, including the foliage. Depending on the variety you get, expect to see reds, oranges or yellows but never expect to be disappointed. If you’re buying this plant strictly for its fall interest then you will want to go for the variety Hamemalis virginiana, which is what I have in my garden. Unlike other witch hazels which are usually the very first things to bloom in the spring, Hamemalis virginiana does the opposite and blooms in the late fall — rare for a woody plant.

Blueberry – Blueberries thrive in my neck of the woods and throughout most of the northeast, making this plant a necessary addition to any garden. You get the bounty of their delicious fruit in late July and early August, but not many people give the blueberry bush its credit when fall rolls around and its leaves turn to a fiery red. Its color is so potent that I always suggest it as a native substitute for the invasive burning bush.

Red Twig Dogwood – This one is a double whammy. Not only do you get the great fall foliage of its orange yellow leaves, but once those fall to the ground and are forgotten you’re left with the woody stems which seem to glow yellow to red, depending on the cultivar you choose. Set against the snow, this plant gets an A+ in the winter interest department, providing color when you need it the most.

Oak leaf hydrangea

Oak Leaf Hydrangea – Oak leaf hydrangea gets its name because of its (surprise!) oak-shaped leaves. Like most hydrangeas, it offers beautiful flowers, but once fall rolls around this one surprises with its large foliage that turns bronze, crimson and purple. The stems of this hydrangea have a papery bark that peels back in the autumn and winter, revealing a deep brown inner bark that makes for a great show in its own right.

Smokebush – Depending on the variety you get, Smokebush has deep red to purple oval-shaped foliage all year long that you think just couldn’t get any better, and then… it does! Its leaves fade to a showy orange-red to yellow in autumn that makes this one of those rare plants that’s grown almost exclusively for its foliage.

When it comes to plants, there are a lot of variables that affect its overall performance and fall foliage is no exception. Depending on conditions, the type of “show” you get out of your plants can vary from year to year and location to location. However, the plants listed above are all native plants that perform well in this area.

Related article: The How and Why of Fall Foliage

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/02/14 at 01:58 PM • Permalink