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Fabulous Foliage for Fall Color

by Ruth Foster

Fall is the third season in the garden. Plan now and plant for a two-month show.  Autumn is the third season in the garden. The sequence of unfolding foliage colors lasts for two full months from late September to Thanksgiving for those who will look to the trees.

Although bright red and glowing orange maples are what’s referred to as "peak" color, the more subtle hues wax and wane throughout the season. Amazingly, each tree and leaf is a little different.

Once upon a time the fall colors used to hold mystery and awe as Jack Frost kissed the leaves and they put on a final vain show to please him.

Today, we understand that the green of the photosynthesis cells fades thereby exposing the anthocyanins (red) and carotinoides (yellow). We know that sugars can’t get out of the leaf when cold closes the cell layer at the bottom of each leaf and that makes the colors more vivid. Weather computers forecast exactly where "peak" color will be on a given day, and whether the color will be better this year than last year.

In truth, the best color is always the color at the moment one sees and enjoys it, especially when the sun shines on the leaves, or back lights them, particularly against a leaden grey sky.

Perhaps it was better to watch naively in times of yore as the leaves turned their glorious colors, but in fairness, science though unpoetic, is not all bad. Because of what we now know, we can easily co-opt Mother Nature’s accidents and plan a fall garden with two full months of color. All it takes is a little calculating of the fall color sequence, plus some space in which to plant the necessary assortment of trees and shrubs.

In spring, each tree and shrub leafs out on its own schedule. In fall, it colors in its own time as well. Certain ones always come out early, others later. Several factors affect the timing and intensity of fall color. Full sun produces the best color. Cold nights and warm days do too. Cold locations color earlier than warm, sheltered spots, and the show always begins with swamp red maples where the frosts settle in the lowlands. The best color is in New England, Japan and parts of China. Elsewhere there will still be fall color, but not as vivid.

THE EARLIEST TO COLOR are the redbuds (red/yellow), honeylocusts (yellow), stewartias (red/purple) and zelkovas (red/orange). Early shrubs are blueberry (crimson, long lasting), forsythia (a blah yellow), and oak leaf hydrangea (orange/purple, if growing in sun).

FOLLOWED QUICKLY BY THE "PEAK" COLOR which includes the sugar maples (orange), red maples ( all shades of yellow, orange and red), amalanchier (red) , dogwoods (deep red, one of the best ), and sorrel tree ( a rich scarlet). Vivid red bushes are aronia, burning bush, wild sumac and enkianthus. Witch hazel complements these with its rich yellow color. Virginia creeper vine turns crimson, and noxious poison ivy turns a muddy yellow.

If the weather is fair, the colored leaves hang on longer and overlap. If it’s stormy and windy, the "peak" passes quickly.

THEN ANOTHER WAVE as dogwoods continue joined by the incredibly vivid Japanese maples (glowing orange/red), also birches (pale golden), Norway maple (yellow), sweet gum (scarlet), Japanese cherries (yellow/tan), and sourgum (scarlet/orange).

THE FINALE has the deep, rich colors of the oaks (scarlet/ mahogany), Callery pears (deep red) and beeches (mostly golden). In sheltered forests, the yellow leaves of young beech trees often hold for most of the winter. The last tree to truly delight the eye is the Japanese red maple that glows blood red when the low sun shines through its leaves. In Japan, gardens often include such a maple in the western corner to be a "warm spot to sit in the setting sun" says my Japanese book from Kyoto.

The nice thing about the fall garden is that once the plants are established it’s easy and very reliable. Though one can’t have them all, one or two from each stage will give a long season of color and provide some of that old feeling of the mystery and awe.


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