When I was about 14, I discovered a secret garden, where rock-lined paths wound through towering oaks and hickories. It was a large, abandoned estate, possessing high and low places and an abundance of huge, overgrown shrubs and trees set out years ago. A double stone staircase mounted a steep slope, and tucked between its two arms was a grotto, draped with an ivy curtain, in which I could look out, unseen by others, to a pond half-filled through the years with mud and cattails.
I found this amazing place in a magical season – autumn – when the air has a certain crispness and leaves start to glow. To this day, I remember the leaves of the Japanese maples that grew there. As I stood beneath the trees’ graceful, horizontal branches, the sunlight that filtered through their leaves was suffused with an otherworldly golden hue, and the air I breathed in seemed thicker and fuller than ordinary. The already fallen leaves under my feet, still pliable and fragrant from their recent release, were like a spilled treasure chest of gold that I wanted to gather up and bring home with me.
This year’s exceptional fall foliage season here in north central California has reminded me of how special fall color can be in our gardens. Unfortunately, erratic weather patterns do not always result in the perfect combination of temperature, humidity, and winds that creates the long-lasting display we’ve been enjoying. But by adding some well-chosen plants and siting them carefully for maximum effect, we can furnish our outdoor areas with autumn lanterns that light up summer’s end no matter how long we get to enjoy their ephemeral effect.
A major task of garden design is setting up the views. Wherever you linger near a window, the view from there to the outdoors should resemble a well-composed picture. The places I’m talking about are your favorite reading chair, breakfast and dining rooms, the glass door leading to the garden – not the frosted opening above the bathtub.
Some of us are fortunate in having spectacular natural views outside our windows, and these should be cherished, framed, and enhanced with structures and plants. Others live in more circumscribed environments and will need to create their own views. In either situation, autumn color can play a part in their composition.
First, situate fall-season plants against a wall or fence, or in front of a background of dark evergreen foliage. Contrast is the key word here, and is defined as a strong difference in color, tone, or hue. For example, if you have a dark brown wall, red and purple leaves will not stand out as well as gold and orange ones.
To create a really strong color statement, plant in groups, or repeat a grouping in several places throughout the garden. Employ color echoes among different plants for a unified look. Do this, for instance, by siting the yellow-leaved maple near the Pistache tree with its yellow, red, and orange colors.
The low angle of the November sun is a natural way to backlight leaves and really pop their colors. Views looking to the south and west will benefit from this technique most, rewarding you with glowing late afternoon color displays.
Gazing up into a backlit canopy of stained-glass-like leaves is also a special treat. So, when choosing a tree to shade your outdoor dining or sitting area, think beyond summer cooling effects and also consider what the tree can bring to the autumn party.
Even leaves fallen to the ground can be ornamental until they dry up and are consigned to the compost pile or ground up for mulch. One of the most dramatic trees for this effect is Ginkgo biloba, an ancient species cherished for its unusual, fan-shaped leaves. For weeks, Ginkgos show off their luminescent, golden fall color and then, in one day, an executive decision is made to shed their leaves all at once so that a large, brilliantly yellow skirt lies around each one. Not a leaf is left on the trees.
The list of deciduous plants notable for fall foliage color includes not just trees but also shrubs and vines. To generate a list of plant possibilities, type into a web search engine the words fall, foliage, and then your climate zone. Local nurseries and botanical gardens usually have lists, too. Whatever your garden setting, be sure to choose plants that will not outgrow their place when mature but will celebrate for many years this transitory season in their full and glorious color.
Karen McGrath is a professional garden designer working out of Redding in the foothills of north central California. Her mission is to bring people outside, which she accomplishes by designing custom-fitted, outdoor spaces for their homes. She also volunteers her time and expertise at the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Redding CA. Reach Karen via at email@example.com, or at (530) 222-4277. Check out her website at karenmcgrathdesign.com.