Ah, fall!

A tree nearby puts on a blinding show of fall color. Seeing that bright scarlet tower against a bright blue sky on a sunny day is breathtaking. I think it’s a sunset maple. For nearly two decades, whenever I pass it, I gasp in awe at this amazing tree’s regal raiment.

The sweet gum trees in my own front yard are not quite as brilliant but they are eye-catching in their own subtle, earthy way. With a mix of burgundy, red, yellow and green fall leaves, they beg for a closer inspection, which is good because I’m usually viewing them from the ground as I rake them into piles.

October, at least in typical years, tends to be our transition month. Although autumn officially starts in September, the nice weather holds on for a few extra weeks and each day feels extra special because of it. Inevitably though, the clouds and rain return in earnest (so welcome this year!) — that familiar rain that keeps Oregon green and lush. There is something very comforting about rain happening when it’s supposed to.

One of my favorite quotes sums it up perfectly: “Autumn is the second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

Despite the vagaries of weather, the fall foliage on deciduous plants can be enjoyed just as much as the first daffodil in spring. With hybridizers working diligently to develop more compact plants for backyard gardens, a savvy gardener can create an autumnal work of art. It starts by researching shrubs and trees with showy fall foliage. Once you’ve got your list, you can narrow it by considering each plant’s growing needs and eventual size. Here are a few growing in my own backyard:

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia cvs.). This shrub comes in large, medium and small sizes depending on the cultivar. If planted in full sun, its soil shouldn’t be allowed to get too dry. In fall the foliage and flowers turn red and yellow, eventually morphing to deep burgundy, a perfect complement the blushing conical flowers.

Blueberry Bush (Vaccinum corymbosum). Blueberry plants have deep red fall color. Some newer varieties such as ‘Sunshine Blue’ hold that gorgeous foliage all winter and into spring when they bloom. Smaller varieties can grow in a container.

Barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Crimson Pigmy’) is a small, red-leaved, deciduous shrub that harmonizes beautifully with whoever its neighbors might be. In fall, the foliage goes from deep to bright red before falling. Oftentimes the tiny, bright red berries hold on.

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’). This is one of my favorite shrubs. In spring, bee-attracting flowers bloom on terminal clusters and eventually ripen to bright red berries that hold on all winter, or until the birds eat them all. In fall the green, lanced-shaped leaves turn brilliant red, complementing the red berries beautifully. The plant can grow up to 8 feet in height or pruned to stay smaller.

Coral Bark Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’), is a stellar fall performer. The newer branches are bright red while the summer-green leaves take on brilliant golden and red colors. This maple can grow in full or part sun and requires very little effort once established. Most if not all Japanese Maples provide gorgeous fall color.

This is list is just the tip of the iceberg. Visit your local nursery and see what they’ve got. If you don’t have room in your garden for more, consider using a container. And have fun!

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