Fall is a chance for the garden to slow down as it prepares for a winter rest. It’s also a time many gardeners associate with a multitude of chores and cleanup. Oh, the drudgery of raking leaves, dividing perennials, and cutting back spent foliage. You know how it goes.
While we’d never suggest you ignore your fall garden checklist, we would like to recommend you take a moment to evaluate your landscape, too. What are the colors and scents you associate with fall? Do you see them in your yard?
If you don’t see anything interesting, now’s the time to install some tried and true stunners. Planting them in the fall allows them to build up their root systems before winter takes over. So without further adieu, here are some to consider for the future enjoyment of your autumn landscape.
This versatile plant does well in zones 6-10. It’s a moderate-sized shrub growing between 3 to 5 feet in height and width. Both drought and shade tolerant, it isn’t very particular about the type of soil it lives in.
Once cooler weather sets in, its green leaves turn an eye-catching chartreuse before withering away. But the show doesn’t end here. Once those branches have relinquished their leafy garb, clusters of bright purple berries glisten along its branches.
But beautyberry isn’t just a pretty face in the garden. Those lovely purple clusters are a valuable food source and quite the treat for numerous birds like robins, finches, and mockingbirds.
But if its contribution to nature’s wildlife buffet isn’t enough to inspire you to plant one of your own, maybe the cultural value will. Native Americans valued this plant for its medicinal properties.
They’d use the twigs, roots, and leaves to treat common ailments like stomachache, dizziness, dysentery, and even colic.
If you’ve got space for it, this one’s a contender. You may be familiar with its use in the cosmetics industry, where the extract is sold as an astringent. The shrub can grow 15 to 30 feet in height and width, but diligent pruning can keep it a more manageable size.
It does best in areas that receive a proper chill, so those of you in zones 3-8, you’re in luck. Witch hazel prefers full sun but can tolerate part shade. And even though it isn’t finicky about soils, it’ll perform best in one that’s moist and well-drained.
This hardy plant produces flowers that can be yellow, red, or orange for a spectacular autumn show. Flowers are scented, described as spicy, woody, herbal, and even medicinal.
They are small, with strappy petals shaped like a firework, but their size is more than made up by their number as they bloom prolifically on bare branches.
And bonus: if you need another project to add to your DIY list, try extracting your own astringent from your homegrown plant!
If it’s interesting foliage you’re looking for, Virginia Sweetspire could be your game. This mounded plant has leaves that start out dark green in spring and summer, during which time fragrant white flowers are borne along drooping stalks.
In the fall, those green leaves give way to red, purple, orange, or gold leaves that catch sunlight like fire.
Sweetspire is a native plant from the eastern US, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow it in your area, especially when it’s not finicky about where it plants its feet. Acidic soil? No problem! Alkaline soil? Sure! Anything in between? Why not?
Its tolerance of different soil types makes it a good choice for hard-to-plant areas. As long as it gets full sun to part shade, you can plant it in a spot where it can spread its arms and legs to reach its full size, between six feet wide and eight feet tall.
Red Osier Dogwood
A common and more descriptive name is red twig dogwood, and one look will explain why. You won’t see it until after it loses its leaves. Then, the striking red branches bring life to an otherwise dull landscape.
This showstopper needs room to branch out as it grows between nine feet tall and 10 feet wide. The cooler USDA climate zones 2 to 7 are the lucky ones who get to enjoy its beauty, but only as long as you obey its requirements: it wants moist soil and at least four hours of sun daily.
If the pretty branches aren’t enough to inspire you to plant it, maybe its contribution as a wildlife resource will. Red twig dogwood grows quickly to form dense thickets.
These thickets provide cover, white berries for birds, and delicious foliage for grazing by rabbits, elk, deer, and chipmunks.
Belonging to the same family as witch hazel, fothergilla, a.k.a. witch alder, has its own characteristics that make it deserving of an entry all its own.
There are several varieties available, giving you choices in flower structure, mature height and width, growth habits, and colors. And unlike its cousin witch hazel, fothergilla doesn’t mind a little heat as long as it gets some afternoon shade.
Plant this one in your yard, and you’ll be treated to fragrant honey-scented flowers that look like mini bottlebrushes. But you won’t be the only one enjoying these pretty gems. The early pollinators will be joining you in the garden for a sweet feast.
Don’t worry, though. There will be plenty to share. They appear in spring, followed by deeply veined, leathery foliage. But you’re waiting for the show, aren’t you? Well, when fall hits, those sturdy leaves turn a dramatic coppery shade that will blend in with other colors in your yard.
Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad: 1) fothergilla tends to produce suckers that can easily take over if you’re not paying attention, and 2) deer are big fans of the flowers.
Other than that, you’ll find this plant looks great in the landscape with rhododendrons and ferns, featured as a specimen plant in a cottage garden, or naturalized in a woodland area. The choice is yours.
Oak Leaf Hydrangea
These striking plants have a very different look and appeal from the more traditional hydrangeas: the leaves, not surprisingly, resemble oak leaves, hence the name, and the flower clusters are cone-shaped instead of rounded.
When in bloom, the flowers start off white, then slowly fade to pink or mauve. Depending on the variety, they can grow from four to 15 feet tall and wide, with an equally wide range of landscape uses, from foundation plantings to woodland borders to container plants.
As the weather cools, those leathery leaves up to 12 inches long turn from green to purple, red, and bronze. But the display doesn’t end there.
Once the leaves have fallen, the oakleaf hydrangea continues to make a spectacle of itself as its cinnamon-colored bark peels away from the branches in a tantalizing striptease. Ooh-la-la!
Hardy in zones 5-9, they aren’t as thirsty as their other hydrangea cousins, but they do prefer acidic soil and good drainage. Don’t we all?
Native to areas in the midwest, spicebush has many uses in the garden other than providing beautiful fall color. It plays host to different butterflies and moths, including the spicebush swallowtail that got its name from the plant.
In addition to attracting pollinators, it provides food to birds and small animals in the form of bright red berries.
Fragrant yellow-green flowers form in spring before the light green leaves take their places. This multi-stemmed shrub grows into a rounded shape for a bright yellow wash of color underneath a drab autumn sky.
Colors are more vibrant when grown in sun, but it won’t complain if all you have for it is a place in the shade.
Zones 4 to 9 are best for this shrub that grows between six and 12 feet tall and wide.
There are different varieties of sumac, but for landscape use, we’ll focus on staghorn and smooth sumac. Staghorn sumac is named for the fuzzy branches that look like the velvet on a stag’s antler. And unlike the smooth sumac, staghorn sumac has fuzzy berries.
The variety you choose will determine the zone best suited for it, but generally, sumacs like zones between 3 and 9. They aren’t picky about soil conditions and love full sun, but as with other hardy plants, they’ll tolerate just about anything as long as their needs are met.
If you’ve seen sumac in the wild, you know they are large plants, growing to the size of a small tree, upwards of 16 feet. But it’s their multi-stemmed growth habit that lands them in the shrub category, so here we are.
Sumacs are distributed along the east coast and through the midwest. They provide valuable resources for both animals and humans. For birds, the appeal lies in the berries for sustenance and the protection within its branches.
But like the birds, we’re also fans of sumac berries. It doesn’t take much to turn them into a refreshing drink. Just be sure you know what you’ve planted and are not harvesting from poison sumac!
This category encompasses a large family of shrubs of varied sizes, needs, and growth habits. One of our favorites is Brandywine viburnum for its deep maroon fall color.
It likes partial to full sun and doesn’t appreciate having wet feet. Clusters of white flowers in the spring will lead to blue and pink berries that attract the birds.
We also like the Korean Spice Viburnum for both its red flair in autumn and its pretty pinkish flower clusters in spring. It grows in zones 4 to 7, and other than a moderate thirst for water, it’s mostly low-maintenance once established. It also grows to a very modest six feet tall, as opposed to some of the other viburnum behemoths (ahem, Chinese Snowball Viburnum).
And yet, we love Chinese Snowball viburnum, so please forgive us for throwing you under the bus! It’s just that 20 feet is kind of tall, and we aren’t quite as young and spry as we used to be.
Just the thought of scurrying up a ladder that high is enough to make us wet our Depends. Still, we love the showy white clusters that appear in April, so perhaps the 8 to 15 feet tall Japanese Snowball is a more manageable option.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the most beautiful viburnums: double-file viburnum. This one has a horizontal branching form that looks like it’s been pruned into layers.
Delicate flowers look like lace caps along the branches. And did we mention the reddish-purple foliage? Just another reason to put viburnums on your next nursery list.
Full to partial sun is all you need for this pretty plant to be happy in your garden. It’s not too large, growing to only three to four feet tall with an even wider spread. It forms dense, mounding clumps that offer red flower clusters in the summer.
Dramatic colors occur in spring as bronze new growth covers the branches. Foliage mellows out to yellow-green over the season, then brightens again in the fall as leaves turn coppery-orange before falling off.
These plants do best in zones 4 to 9. They like a good drink at least once a week to keep their roots nice and moist. They’re also versatile, fitting into a cottage garden just as well as an ornamental border.
And there you have it! Proof that you don’t have to spend the entire fall season doing nothing but garden chores. Regardless of whether you think you need one or not, why not give yourself a break? Sniff a few flowers before it’s time to deadhead them.
Then head out to the garden center to pick up some plants that offer a little cool-weather interest. With so many options, you’re bound to find the perfect shrubs to bring you some happiness and joy before the dark of winter sets in.