As summer wanes and autumn approaches, I notice the birds congregating in the trees and on overhead wires. The air is sweetly scented with ripening fruit. The light changes, becoming more golden. Everything seems ready to burst. Not in the tender, life is beginning way of spring, but in a more poignant manner that hints life is beginning to fade.
Autumn has always been my favorite season, and when summer is dishing out heat and humidity, and winter brings me face to face with a polar vortex, I remember its rich color palette. Fall color typically peaks mid-October in southern Wisconsin, but I am often way too busy setting up for the holidays to do much traveling. My solution? Plant as many trees, shrubs and perennials that have autumn interest as possible. And when I need a respite from chaos, all I have to do is to stroll through my own yard.
Let’s begin with the most obvious sign of fall, the changing colors of foliage. If you have room for a tree, the Maidenhair, or Ginkgo, cloaks herself in the most spectacular shade of clear yellow. Ginkgoes are an ancient genus and imprints of the distinctive leaf have been found on fossils dating 200 million years ago. ‘Saratoga’, or Fishtail Gingko has a narrower leaf shape. And it’s a male cultivar, so the tree won’t produce any of those stink-o gingko fruits.
A shrub that packs a powerful punch of fall color is the Witch-alder, or Fothergilla. They are quite adaptable plants that naturalize beautifully. ‘Blue Shadow’ sports steel blue foliage that offers a cool foil to your summer blooming perennials, but as the temperatures drop, it warms right up with a dazzling display of gold, orange and scarlet.
And good fall interest isn’t limited to woody plants. Plenty of perennials can put on an eye-catching show. For excellent foliage color, it’s hard to beat the Cranesbill Geraninums. Many of these easy-care perennials can adapt to light conditions from full sun to part shade, with lovely summer flowers in pink and blue. Once the flowers fade, Geraniums will dress themselves in shades of scarlet and burgundy. ‘Rozanne’ and ‘Bevans’ are two varieties to try.
A native perennial to consider is Little Bluestem. This grass’s clumping habit makes it a great companion plant in any mixed border, and the flowers are an important food source for small butterflies. In the late summer, the ripening seed heads will attract migrating birds. The foliage of this beauty adds a soft contrast to the strong hues of summer. But watch it in the late summer as it changes to tones of copper, burgundy and smoky purple.
And speaking of food for wildlife, you have to consider the Chokeberries. Members of the genus Aronia have fabulous fall color, but the fruit display is amazing. The tips of the branches are covered in bright red or deep blue-black berries, depending on the variety. My favorite is ‘Autumn Magic’. The contrast of the deep blue fruit against the scarlet foliage makes me giddy.
If you do have the time and inclination to travel, I found an excellent Fall Foliage Prediction Map at https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/, You click on the weekends that you’re free and the map will show you where the color is peaking. But whether you’re able to explore a new place, or need to stay home, do your garden a favor and this year, plan for fall leaves before the leaves fall.