IF I’M A PROSELYTIZER FOR ANYTHING, it’s for the idea of a 365-day garden, no matter where you live. A Margaret-ism: The garden never closes (even if your local garden center does part of the year). Woody plants—trees and shrubs—in particular can really brighten the fall. So while they’re heating up (and while even the garden center’s still open), I’m recommending some easy-care favorites you may want to tuck into your home landscape, too.
The trees and shrubs below are my most reliable for that assignment. I have many other woody plants that display good fall color—but only some years. Some magnolias do (such as ‘Ballerina,’ an early flowering fragrant white Loebner hybrid that I adore), though only most years.
Shadbush, or Amelanchier, would be another easy-to-grow good choice, a native with extra-early flowers and good fall color. Except for this: In my area, where Eastern red cedars and apple trees are both in long supply, conditions are therefore prime for the fungus called cedar apple rust to cause my shadbush (and other rose relatives) to defoliate early. Oops.
So here’s my top-12 list (with links to their full profiles if I have one in the archives):
Acer pseudosiebodianum, Korean maple (Zones 4-7 or 8, about 20 feet high and wide). A Japanese maple lookalike, but with hotter fall color and greater winter hardiness. In your zone, perhaps Japanese maples can do the job, too, but I grow mine in pots to overwinter in the barn.
Aesculus parviflora, bottlebrush buckeye (Zone 4-8, at least 12 by 15, and wider where happy). July flowers, a gorgeous mountainous shape and big presence, and late, vibrant gold autumn color (above) on a native Southeastern shrub.
Aralia spinosa, devil’s walking stick (Zones 4-9, to 20 feet high and suckering, forms a colony). Its well-chosen common name reflects the extra-spiny, cane-line structure. A favorite of me and the birds.
Cornus kousa, Korean dogwood (Zone 4 or 5-8, 20 by 20 or more, plus smaller cultivars). Another multiseason beauty (flower, fruit, bark, foliage), one of many dogwoods I count on in the garden through the year.
Hydrangea paniculata, panicle hydrangea (Zones 3-8, many sizes of cultivars, from several feet tall to 15 or even 25). I know, you don’t think of this for fall, but for its white-to-pinkish trusses of flowers July onward. But wow, when those aging flower combine with foliage that turns, too. The longer I garden, the more I appreciate this forgiving, long-lived creature.
Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes (its formal name is ‘Bailtiger’), the gold-leaf cutleaf staghorn sumac (Zones 3-8, about 5-10 feet high and suckering). People always ask me about it at spring tours.
Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon,’ gold-leaf spirea (Zones 4-8, 5 feet high and wide). Extra-early white blooms and then gold foliage all spring and summer, turning a beautiful butterscotch color in fall and persisting till Christmas before it drops. True!
Stewartia pseudocamellia, Japanese stewartia (Zones 4 or 5-7, 25 or more feet high and wide). Peeling bark, summer flowers, and hot fall foliage on this one, and a great overall structure in the winter landscape.
Vaccinium angustifolium (lowbush blueberry, Zones 2-5, to 2 feet high) and Vaccinium corymbosum (highbush blueberry, Zones 3-6, up to 12 feet high and wide). Blueberries for you and the birds following early flowers, and preceding some of the hottest red fall foliage anywhere.
Viburnum species, including V. plicatum tomentosum (doublefile viburnum, Zones 5-8, above detail) and others such as carlesii, cassinoides, dentatum, nudum, opulus, lentago and more. I’m viburnum-mad (and so are the birds). Investigate this genus if you have not.
WHAT FALL COLOR are you enjoying from trees and shrubs in your garden now, or do you expect to start glowing in the weeks to come?