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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: DYI autumn

Color is a major element in any garden. Autumn color in New England brings a richness to the garden that no other season can match. We become especially aware of this in our area, with everyone watching the development of autumn color on the hillsides, along country roadsides and, if we are lucky, in our own gardens. Everyone I have talked to recently shares the opinion that this year we have had the most brilliant and beautiful autumn in years.

New England and our western Massachusetts hills are famous for the autumnal brilliance of the sugar maple. But there are many ways to get that brilliance into our gardens with carefully chosen trees and shrubs.

Every day, I sit at my dining table and look at a stand of staghorn sumac at the edge of the Sunken Garden. Most of you probably don’t think about sumac, which is such a common roadside plant, but it does have wonderful autumn color. In addition to the common staghorn sumac, there are other varieties like the cutleaf sumac, which is smaller and has an amazing orange color in fall. I think this is the variety that grows on the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls.

Recently, I visited the new Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It includes a number of stewartia trees. These trees are slow growers but will be about 30 feet at maturity. The foliage opens to a dark bronzy color in spring, then becomes bright green in summer when the beautiful camellia-like flowers bloom and then changes to red and orange in the fall. The bark is smooth and mottled, creating some winter interest, as well.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is native to our area and like stewartia, will grow slowly to a height of 30 feet. In late summer, it produces delicate panicles of fragrant white flowers, followed by yellow seed capsules that turn brown and last all winter. It has shiny leaves that will turn vivid shades of maroon, yellow and purple in fall.

Sweet birch (Betula lenta) is another native that will reach a height of 50 feet. In addition to the golden leaves of fall, it has cinnamon brown peeling bark that is interesting in all seasons. All birches, from the familiar river birch that is often used in the domestic landscape, to the majestic yellow birch have autumn foliage in shades of gold and yellow.

We planted gingko trees in our mixed border as a kind of memento of our two years in Beijing. These ancient trees, native to China, date back over 270 million years. They have a beautiful, leathery fan-shaped leaf that turns gold in the fall. These leaves have a tendency to fall off the tree all at once. We have certainly wakened in the morning and found every single leaf in a golden pool around the tree.

I was happy to find that gingkos are hardy in our area. They have certainly proved that they are tough, trouble-free trees. Some people hesitate to plant them because the fruit of the female tree is reputed to be so unpleasantly smelly. I have seen many gingkos, but have never experienced this myself. My own trees are not old enough, mature enough, to have produced fruit and I figure by the time they are old enough, they will no longer be my problem.

Another unusual conifer that can add gold to the fall color festival is the larch, Larix laricina. We do not expect conifers, which are evergreens, to change color to any great degree, except when they are putting out new growth. The soft, feathery needles of the larch however, turn gold in the fall and then they fall off. Hardly “ever green.” This is a wonderful tall tree that can make a beautiful grove, or a stunning specimen.

Shrubs can add good autumn color, too. Everyone is familiar with the ruby foliage of burning bush, Euonymous alata, but this is an invasive plant and planting it is discouraged. You can get the same color by planting blueberries and you get the blueberries, too. Or, you can simply consider that you are putting out a feast for the birds who love blueberries. Blueberry bushes like an acidic soil, but you cannot say they have any other requirements.

Chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, is native to North America and it also produces highly nutritious berries, but they will need to be cooked up into jam to be palatable to most people. They grow to about 10 feet tall with a 6-foot spread. The brilliant fall foliage comes in shades of orange and red.

I will not dismiss maples altogether. My site is too windswept, but the Golden Fullmoon Japanese maple, e_SNbSAcer shirasawanume_SNbS“Aureum,” is hardy in Zone 5 (to minius 15 degrees). It makes a magnificent specimen tree that will reach a height and spread of 20 feet. The summer foliage is a golden yellow that turns brilliant scarlet beginning at the edges in fall. The center of the leaf always remains golden — hence the “fullmoon” in its name.

Acer palmatum “Waterfall,” is a dwarf Japanese maple (8 feet tall with an equal spread) with lacy green foliage in the summer that turns fiery shades of orange, yellow and red in the fall. It has a graceful form as indicated by its name and is also hardy in Zone 5.

Autumn color comes in all shades and on many trees and shrubs. Don’t limit yourself too quickly.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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