Now is the best time to plant many trees and shrubs, says Elly West. Get them in the soil while it’s still warm to give them the best start for next season
The garden is winding down now that autumn is here, but there’s still a riot of colour to look forward to as the colder weather brings new treasures in the form of berries, fruits, leaves and stems. Despite the ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ Keats once spoke of, autumn isn’t a subtle season. Gone are the soft pastels and gentle shades of spring and summer and instead we have strong and vibrant reds, russets and oranges to illuminate the shorter days.
That’s why I think every garden, no matter what its size, should have a tree chosen particularly for autumn colour. I’m a huge fan of trees in the garden, and there are plenty that work well in a small space. They bring height and structure, and a year-round dimension – a feeling of permanence. On the modern housing estate where I live, built about 16 years ago, every garden included a tree of some description as part of the specification (as well as the usual poor soil, builders’ rubble and scrubby lawn). Many remain and they are now mature specimens that make the gardens feel established. Mine is a particularly beautiful columnar Japanese flowering cherry, that provides spring blossom and also autumn colour.
Trees are generally low maintenance, and can bring benefits in terms of shade, screening, fruit, berries, or somewhere to hang a bird-feeder, some fairy lights or even a swing. They are great at softening new hard landscaping and blocking neighbours, not to mention their benefits to the environment in terms of providing habitats and reducing carbon dioxide.
When we think of trees that provide colour in the garden, Japanese maples (acers) are perhaps unrivalled in their display. They’re a popular choice for small gardens with their compact habit and graceful, slow-growing form, and also do well in pots where the conditions, in terms of soil type and position, can be adapted to suit them perfectly. They are generally easy to grow, unfussy and very versatile, but will appreciate a neutral to slightly acidic soil and, importantly, a sheltered spot away from scorching sunlight, strong winds and late frosts.
Naturally woodland dwellers, dappled shade suits them well, but make sure you give them space so they can be fully appreciated. Often grown as a specimen or feature tree, they do come with a high price tag, but are a long-lived investment that you’ll continue to enjoy year after year.Every garden, no matter its size, should have a tree chosen for autumn colour, and Japanese maples (acers) are perhaps unrivalled in their display
Acers are suited to formal and informal styles and, of course, Japanese gravel gardens where they will sit comfortably next to rocks and a water feature. One of the best, in my view, for autumn colour is Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum’, which has green leaves turning to bronze and then red in autumn. Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ has one of the finest red leaves in autumn, although the change is not as dramatic, as they are purple for the rest of the year.
When choosing an acer, check its overall shape and form. They require minimal pruning and are best left to their own devices, so find one that is already a pleasing shape, without crossing branches or stems that are noticeably lopsided.
Other trees on my must-have list for autumn include the rowan, Sorbus vilmorinii. This is another good tree for a small space, as it is slow growing, neat and compact, with an open canopy that won’t block too much light. It also offers plenty of interest through the seasons, with creamy flowers in spring, attractive foliage, crimson berries fading to white, and dazzling autumn colour.
Amelanchier lamarckii is another favourite, and a tree that I love spotting as I drive around in spring when its brand new bronze foliage, combined with white flowers, really makes it stand out from the pack. During summer it takes a back seat, but then in autumn it comes to the fore again when the leaves turn stunning shades of copper and yellow.
As well as trees, there are plenty of shrubs and climbers that are worth growing for their autumn display. Callicarpa bodnieri ‘Profusion’ has violet berries teamed with golden purple foliage at this time of year, with the berries lasting like little jewels on bare stems into the winter months.
Virginia creeper deserves a mention, coming into its own in autumn with a fanfare of radiant red leaves. It’s a chimney reacher, so you’ll need to prune it to keep it in its bounds (best done in autumn or early winter). Pay particular attention if it’s encroaching on windows, gutters and roofs, as it will happily romp away if left unchecked. It grows well in sun or shade and has inconspicuous greenish flowers in summer, which are attractive to bees and hoverflies.
Now is the best time to plant many trees and shrubs. Choose a tree to plant this autumn, and you may be able to buy bare-root, often at a fraction of the cost of the same specimen potted up in compost at the garden centre. Get them in the soil while it’s still warm, and the roots will have a chance to settle and grow before winter, giving them the best possible start for next season.
• Elly West is a garden designer. For more details, visit ellyswellies.co.uk
OCTOBER TASK: MAKING LEAF MOULD
We’ll enjoy the gorgeous colours of autumn leaves on the trees this month, but when they start to cover the garden, we might not be enjoying them quite so much. Trees are an asset to any garden, but the autumn clear-up is not a job most gardeners look forward to. Leaves make a mess on the lawn, smother the borders – creating breeding grounds for slugs, snails and fungal diseases – and just when you’ve raked them into a nice neat pile to pick up, a gust of wind scatters them everywhere. Choose a dry, still day to collect up leaves and use a rake or a leaf blower to get them into piles. But don’t get rid of them. Instead, create your own leaf mould – it’s garden gold! Either build a simple leaf bin with a length of chicken wire around some posts in the ground, or just put the leaves in bags (empty compost bags are ideal) spiked with some holes, and leave them to rot down. In a year or two, you’ll have beautiful crumbly leaf mould, which is great to use as a nutritious mulch on your soil.