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 whats
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 cant 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 Natures 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 its 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
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
The nice thing about the fall garden is that once the plants are
established its easy and very reliable. Though one cant 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.