Six Ways to Make the Most of Fall Foliage

IMG_6759There is no doubt about it – we have left summer behind. Instead of waking up to clear blue skies we are more likely to see grey storm clouds rolling in. The good news is that just because the sky is changing color doesn’t mean our gardens  have to. In fact if we focus on FOLIAGE fall can be one of the most vibrant seasons in the garden.

The key, however, is knowing how to create vignettes in the landscape to make the most of our fall foliage. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1. Create a vignette around a sculpture, container or other focal point in your garden.

Use a beautiful container

Use a beautiful container as a focal point

In summer this grass is a delicate teal-blue, a perfect complement to the rustic container. In fall, as the grass takes on warm earth tones, the partnership changes. Now the grass echoes the brown pot rim as well as playing into the deeper shades of the container glaze.

Look behind the container and note the fall color of a Japanese maple. This repeats the colors found in the grass, adding depth to the scene.

One pot, two seasonal vignettes – it’s all about the foliage.

2. Focus on textures

IMG_1284This is a Japanese maple of unknown heritage. It was given to me by a friend as a 6″ cutting and after several years is still only a petite 5′ tall, yet its fall color is remarkable and deserves to be showcased. How to do that without overwhelming this small tree?

Rather than adding bold contrasting color nearby I elected instead to use  wispy tan grasses. Thieir delicate texture allows the small maple foliage to be the star in this garden scene.

3. Use existing structures as a backdrop for exciting foliageIMG_1217The paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is a year round, five star tree known primarily for its cinnamon colored peeling bark – a highlight of the winter garden. However its fall foliage is also outstanding, turning fiery shades of coral, rose and amber over a period of several weeks. The warm brown cedar shingles of the nearby cabin are a perfect foil for such bright leaves.

4. Take advantage of a borrowed landscape


The beautiful maple in the foreground is Acer palmatum Koto-no-ito which means ‘harp strings’; a very apt name for the fine, thread-like foliage. The tree is so delicate, however, that I was unsure how to plant around it. I wanted to showcase its fall color yet not compete with its shape. The answer was to become a virtual-thief!

Our property boundary lies just behind the two red leaved American sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) seen above – beyond that is a neighboring parcel of land. From this perspective my beautiful maple tree is framed initially by the sweetgums and then by the glorious yellow and gold of the distant alders and cottonwoods. I’ve ‘borrowed’ them to use in my own fall foliage vignette. Shhhh

5. Create windows to reveal smaller beautiesIMG_1354In my large garden it is easy for small trees to get ‘lost’ no matter how beautiful their fall color. One solution has been to limb up this row of ornamental pear trees to create windows into the woodland beyond. Notice the vivid orange Lions Head maple (Acer shishigashira) and crimson Purple Ghost maple (Acer p. ‘Purple Ghost’) are revealed as specimens by doing this.

6. Go for all out COLOR!IMG_4150Don’t be bashful – go for high contrast! This Grace smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace’)  is fabulous no matter where you put it, but look how striking the early fall foliage is when combined with the sunny yellow ash trees. No apologies needed – just have FUN.

And that’s what our fall gardens should be – an all out  FOLIAGE PARTY. As you visit the nursery for your new foliage treasure ask yourself how best to showcase it? Maybe you need to buy a few more plants to keep it company???

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12 thoughts on “Six Ways to Make the Most of Fall Foliage

  1. Janet Rochman

    Your pictures are beautiful and have given me some great ideas. I have a question that I cannot seem to find the answer to and since you are a foliage expert I thought I would ask you. I have a chartreuse smoke bush and it is just green, not chartreuse. It is in a lot of shade, not deep shade but still, shade. Should I move it to a sunny spot? Thanks. Jan Rochman

    1. Karen Chapman Post author

      Great questions Janet and you’ve already figured out the answer. Yes I have found that Golden Spirit is rather fickle. Too much sun and it scorches. Not enough and it stays a rather drab green.Move it to a sunnier location but try and avoid really hot afternoon sun. Dappled light at that time of day has given me the best results.

  2. Karen Chapman Post author

    It is Sioux Blue Indian Grass or Sorghastrum nutans ‘Sioux Blue’. Many grasses take on similar colors; pheasant tail grass for example but it is shorter. This urn is about 40″ tall so I needed a tall grass to make it work.

  3. Heike Perry

    Enjoyable as always, Karen. Are you gardening on acid soil? Mine is alkaline and I do not get the stunning colours as a rule. So I have taken to growing a Cercis ‘Forest Pansy in a large pot and was rewarded last year with the most amazing fire-like foliage. Am looking forward to this year’s autumn colour. My Euonymus e. ‘Red Cascade’ does well every year, even planted in my alkaline soil. Lovely red foliage with soft pink seed pods. Have just planted a Cotinus ‘Grace’ and am looking forward to some colour there. I always enjoy your comments

  4. Karen Chapman Post author

    Heike, yes we have acidic soil here but what a great idea to use pots in order to create a soil microclimate. I’m sure ‘Grace’ will do well for you in the garden though as I know my friend grows that in her Yorkshire garden.

    I’ve often wondered about growing that Euonymus, commonly called the spindle tree if I remember correctly. they aren’t as popular here as in England and I’m not sure why,

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