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Collecting Fall Gems

September 03, 2017 4 min read

Why do people collect gems?  Is it because of their dazzling colors or is it because they are rare and valuable?  For whatever the reason, we are attracted to items of fleeting beauty and our local landscapes are about to provide us a jewel in an autumnal display of colors. 

My goal as a garden designer is to provide my clients with SS in their gardens every day of the year (SS = something spectacular).  Our autumn displays can easily become the most spectacular time of the year for your garden with proper planning.  There are so many plants that are at their peak in fall that we are doing ourselves a great dis-service if we are not utilizing some fall gems in our outdoor living spaces.   Of course, it is not my intention to imply that you should rip out your landscaping and fill it with plants displaying only fall colors, but perhaps you may have a few landscape plants that are underperforming (or under-whelming).  If this is the case, you may want to consider plugging in some of the following fall gems into your landscape.

Large trees

There are so many colorful Maples out there it is really hard to pick just one, however Autumn Fantasy Maple grows to 50’ tall but only 30’ wide so it fits into a wide range of landscape settings.  Brilliant orange and scarlet fall colors highlight this fast-growing shade tree. 

American Smoke Tree quickly grows to 30’ tall and 20’ wide with one of the most colorful displays of red, orange, purple, yellow and scarlet.  It’s a great specimen tree that is drought tolerant once established.

Nyssa (or black gum) is a native tree that tolerates moist to wet soils and has a glossy leaf turning bright scarlet in fall.  The horizontal branching habit provides structural interest all year long and especially during the winter months.

Parrotia persica grows to 40’ with yellow/orange/scarlet fall colors making this an extra special specimen tree for those who want to have the only Parrotia tree on the entire street.

Small/medium trees

Many Japanese Maples wait until fall to provide their best show.  Most of these plants have green leaves all season only to burst forth with fall brilliance and provide tremendous architectural interest.  Aconitifolium or Full Moon Japanese  Maple is one of my favorites.  Growing to 15’ with superb structure, this is the perfect small specimen tree for foundation plantings.

Even as an evergreen, Dragon’s Eye Pine is most spectacular during the fall season.  The yellow striped needles glow during fall days and the layering branches provide great structure in the garden.

Viburnum Prunifolium is a native shrub/small tree.  The fall colors range from orange to purple with black fruit that attracts birds as well.  The small size makes this tree ideal for foundation plantings. 

Large shrubs

Amur Maple is a clump forming shrub growing to 15’ that makes an excellent specimen or screening plant.  Orange/red fall colors. 

Flame Smoke Tree quickly grows into a 12’ rounded shrub with brilliant orange fall color. This deer resistant tree also has captivating pink inflorescences in June.

Fothergilla major is a native shrub growing to 10’ and prefers moist soils.  Brilliant orange fall colors adorn this plant while 2” white flowers appear in spring.  Dwarf cultivars are available for smaller spaces.

Small shrubs

Hydrangea pink Beauty is a mop head Hydrangea with deep reddish purple fall color and rosy-pink summer flowers.

There are many Dwarf Blueberries now available that provide excellent fall color.  Most grow only 2-3’ tall and wide making excellent small hedges or specimens in perennial gardens.

Itea Little Henry or Merlot are both small native shrubs with a long lasting reddish/purple fall color.  Often still with colorful leaves into December, this tough little gem is excellent planted in groups along the edge of the woods or as a small foundation plant.

Perennial flowers

 Amsonia acts more like a small shrub than a perennial in the landscape forming a 3-4’ ball of blue flowers in spring and brilliant yellow foliage in fall.  It’s very tough, drought and deer resistant. 

There are so many fine ornamental grasses available but there is a new one that has really captured my attention.  Pennisetum Red Head forms a uniform 4’x4’ ball of striking foliage covered with reddish purple, bottle brush shaped flowers that sway with the slightest breeze.  It’s ideally planted in groups in landscape beds or as a specimen in foundation plantings. 

Plumbago is a groundcover perennial that easily spreads but is not invasive.  Rich, blue flowers emerge in late summer and persist through fall as the plant leaves turn bright red creating a stunning color combination. 

Naturally, there are many more examples of excellent fall gems worth collecting, but this collection is sure to have something for nearly every garden out there.  Many noteworthy plants may not be readily available at the end of the year when garden stores seek to reduce inventory headed into the winter season.  Garden treasures like these are worth seeking out even if it may require a special order or waiting for the ideal plant.  When selecting your next garden gem, be sure to consider your site and the requirements of your plant selection to be certain you have an ideal match.

Every day you deserve to have Something Spectacular in your garden and in your life.  If you woke up today it is within your power to achieve both.

Now go outside and have fun in the dirt.

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