Think autumn colour and you normally think of large trees and amazing specimens in parks and the grounds of stately homes. But you don’t need an arboretum to pack your garden with autumnal fireworks and vibrant colour. There are plenty of plants that put on a spectacle at this time of year, without taking up too much space.
Go for shrubs, rather than trees. Cotinus – the smoke bush – is a shrub I couldn’t be without. A variety such as ‘Royal Purple’ looks magnificent all summer with its dark, dramatic leaves, but when they develop their red and orange autumn colouration they’re truly spectacular. When their leaves are backlit by the sun, they look like glowing stained glass. They reach 5m (15ft) unchecked, but are happy being pruned to size and actually produce their biggest, best leaves if you cut them back hard.
Ceratostigma is an excellent choice if you have limited space because it delivers the double whammy of red autumn leaf colour and sky blue flowers at the same time – all on a shrub just 45cm (18in) tall in the case of Ceratostigma plumbaginoides or 1m (3ft) if you go for brighter Ceratostigma willmottianum – wonderful at the front of a border.
Euonymus alatus is a glorious option too, with astonishingly vivid leaves in the brightest scarlet – so much so they almost don’t seem real. Look for the variety ‘Compactus’ that sticks to a manageable 1m (3ft) tall.
Think outside the box too; some of the best autumn colour doesn’t come from shrubs at all, but perennials whose leaves turn buttery shades of gold as they die back. Hostas do this really well, as do some geraniums. Geranium macrorrhizum turns from green to traffic light shades of yellow, amber and red as the temperature falls. Some euphorbias too have wonderful autumn colour, such as ‘Dixter’ and ‘Fireglow’, both varieties of Euphorbia griffithii. Their stems and leaves develop lovely speckly red tints as they die back, so don’t be in too much of a hurry to cut them down, or you could miss the show!
MUST-HAVE PLANT: Caryopteris
Everyday: Caryopteris x clandonensis
A neat, small shrub with blue flowers in late summer and early autumn. It’s hardy in most places, but needs a bit of shelter from the worst of the winter weather.
Extra-special: Caryopteris clandonensis 'Summer Sorbet'
This variety has the same lovely flowers, but decorative variegated foliage of pale yellow and green as well, helping it look good even when it’s not in flower.
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