A gardeners world has always entailed a fair bit of energetic graft, but then later you reap the reward. It may be the tasty fresh produce you have grown or the beautiful plants now looking their best, or a tranquil spot in which to relax in a sunny corner. If only you could ignore that never ending voice in your sub-conscious reminding you of that weed that needs removing, the broken fence to repair, a few plants needing potted or some other job from a long line of tasks that never end. However, summer is gone, the sun lounger is in store, so topping up the sun tan is no longer an option and a new set of tasks for autumn is reaching priority status.
When the garden is being planned and planted up in the early years, this is the time to consider good plants for autumn colour as the best are usually trees or shrubs that need careful thought to allow them space to grow. Your garden size will determine what you can select.
I usually start by looking at the space for a tree or two. They come in all sizes so it is not difficult to find an appropriate list suited for shelter, screening, blocking unpleasant eyesores, or specimens to be admired. In UK most trees, other than conifers are deciduous so there is plenty scope for colour when they lose their leaves in autumn.
If you are blessed with a large garden you can indulge in any amount of forest trees with excellent autumn colour from the scarlet red oaks, bronze beech, golden maples and sycamores, horse and sweet chestnuts, lime, poplar, and even some elm if you are happy to risk the ravages of any remaining Dutch elm disease. They will all give a brilliant display in the autumn, but do some research before you buy as there is always some outstanding varieties within any one type.
It is always hard to pick a favourite but Acer cappadocicum rubrum is hard to beat if you can find one.
There are a few deciduous conifers that put on a dazzling display in autumn. Larch is the most frequently used, but try to find space for the Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the swamp cypress, Taxodium distichum, or the maidenhair tree, Ginkgo biloba. These are all large trees ultimately though some are slow growing and worthy of a place for ten years or so before they get too big.
Smaller gardens can still enjoy a wide range of good autumn colour with other species such as rowans, whitebeams, cherries, upright forms of hornbeam, liquidamber, amelanchier, maples and birch. There are very many different forms, sizes and attributes for all of these trees, so as tree planting is for the long term do some research before making your purchase.
There are just as many types of shrubs as trees coming in all sizes from ground cover to small trees. They are used to form boundaries, hedges, and as ground cover to smother weeds. Some give shelter and privacy and are often mixed into shelterbelts, windbreaks and woodland fringes to add variety, interest and colour. Some types can be used on steep banks to prevent soil erosion with added benefit of providing food and shelter for wildlife.
Shrubs are often grown for their flowers or other features and good colour in autumn is a bonus. Deciduous azaleas have brilliant autumn colour as well as dazzling scented flowers in spring. Contrast them with the smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria which turns a deep scarlet.
However the plant with the widest range of brilliant colours must belong to some of the Japanese maples. I grow several of these, but Acer palmatum Sangokaku is not only fantastic in autumn but also has bright red stems that glow in the sun all winter.
Autumn is also a time when the heather garden attains bright scarlets and golds on many of the Callunas.
Then don't forget the fruit garden as the blueberries brighten up at leaf fall as well as the saskatoons and chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa. The latter is fast becoming popular as demand for quality superfood increases. The Aronia may only be known as an ornamental large shrub with almost edible berries and excellent autumn colour at present, but its fruit quality is at the highest level for anti oxidants.
My two best climbing plants for autumn colour are the Virginian creeper, Parthenocissus and the ornamental grape vine Vitis vinifera Brant. Careful with the former as it can be very vigorous and grow very tall, and Vitis Brant is also vigorous, but easy to keep in check with pruning. It will need a support to cling to with its tendrils. Its leaves turn scarlet and gold in autumn and its fruit bunches may be small but they are delicious eaten fresh or as a juice extracted from the fruit and kept in the fridge for up to two weeks. Surplus juice can be frozen.
Now we have enjoyed some blissful moments amidst the colourful gently falling leaves our thoughts go back to the next job needing attention
Those once admired leaves have now dropped down and will need raking up, and then this is the last chance to remove weeds before winter begins. I always like to go into the winter with weed free soil. A lesson from history. Hand weeding frosted flower beds in Dawson Park in winter 1960 was not an awful lot of fun. A passing lady walking her dog in the park was overheard telling her friend, “the patients do a marvellous job “
This is also a good time to spread a mulch of rotted compost on those borders planted with bulbs. Once the bulbs begin to emerge it is too late to put any compost on without doing some damage.
Garden tables and chairs can now be brought inside to protect them from winter weather, as opportunity for an outdoor coffee break is only reserved for the hardiest of patients.
Lawns may be purely functional as a place for the dog and kids to play on, or it may be a surface of excellence maintained to the highest level. The mower usually determines the standard, ie. use a rotary for the normal suburban lawn, but a cylinder with grass box for the perfect lawn with stripes. To keep the high standard of surface, autumn renovation work is an essential routine. Any broad leaved weeds will have been removed during the growing season, but moss can be a problem in autumn. Spreading lawn sand is the normal practise, but it may contain a fast acting nitrogenous fertiliser, so I prefer to use its active ingredient sulphate of iron alone. This needs careful diluting in a watering can, then test a small patch before you water the whole lawn. It can be very strong so care is needed, but it is very effective. I also use it on any mossy path areas. The moss turns black in two days.
Scarifying the surface with a springbok rake will also remove moss and any build up of thatch.
To improve surface drainage use the garden fork to put small holes about two to three inches deep into the surface at about six to nine inch spacings. Then spread on an autumn lawn compost dressing which will have an organic slow acting fertiliser in it This should have a higher ratio of potassium and phosphates and be low in nitrogen. Brush the compost into the holes.