Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
September, 2007
Regional Report

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In western Washington the colors of fall can be elusive unless you know where to look.

Fantastic Fall Color

There's an unmistakable crispness in the air, a sure sign that summer is coming to an end. I think fall is a magical time. I love the cooler temperatures, shorter days, and awesome autumn foliage. They have a soothing effect after the busyness of summer, especially when savored with a cup of hot apple cider.

In our maritime climate the seasonal change may not be as dramatic or inspiring as in the East; but with some careful plant selection it's possible to create a personal fall paradise filled with those incredible yellow, orange, red, and purple hues.

Choosing Plants
Every garden needs strong foundation plantings of trees and shrubs. Choosing those with pronounced autumn color gives new dimension to these plantings. Also, because leaf colors differ quite dramatically within a species, fall is the best time to actually select and purchase plants. The trees and shrubs I like most are chosen not only for fall color but also for their problem-free adaptability to our particular climate.

Some of My Favorites
The American sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) grows to 60 feet with a 20- to 25-foot spread. As a good all-year tree, its deep green, 3- to 7-inch leaves turn purple, yellow, or red in fall. Even as seedlings, these give good color. Liquidambars tolerate damp soils and are resistant to oak root fungus. Plant these in a group to give your garden a splash of fall color. Consider some of these varieties: 'Burgundy', 'Festival', 'Palo Alto', and 'Rotundiloba'.

Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki) is a wonderful autumn foliage specimen. As the weather cools, the 7-inch-long, dark green leaves turn yellow, orange, or scarlet. When they drop, the branches hold beautiful orange or scarlet fruit long into the winter months. Persimmon requires deep watering (not too wet or dry) and fertilizing in late winter or early spring. Annual maintenance includes pruning out dead wood and opening the tree up to good air circulation.

Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) is one of my favorite autumn foliage trees, growing moderately from a gawky young tree into a dense, graceful 60-foot-tall and 50-foot-wide specimen. The 4-inch, 10 to 16 paired leaflets turn beautiful shades of scarlet, crimson, orange, and sometimes yellow. As a street or lawn tree, they can take frequent watering as long as the soil is well drained. For best performance, provide minimal deep waterings to curtail the possibility of verticillium wilt -- a fungus that invades and plugs water-conducting tissues, causing wilting and branch dieback. Stake young trees and prune them high enough to walk under.

Oak tree lovers can find some wonderful choices offering fall color. However, for many oaks, garden watering and fertilizing can ultimately lead to their demise. More adaptable are the pin oak (Quercus palustris), scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), and willow oak (Quercus phellos). They are beautiful trees that offer a range of fall colors from yellow to scarlet, and all are very tolerant of the frequent watering required of most landscapes. Check them out at local nurseries.

If your foundation tree plantings are already in place, shrubs provide another way to introduce or expand autumn foliage in your landscape.

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is a marvelous part-shade shrub that grows to 6 feet tall. Planted in rich, porous soil, the graceful 8-inch-long leaves turn bronze to crimson in fall. It produces creamy white clusters of flowers in late June. Oakleaf hydrangea is also a good choice for container planting.

The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is an unusual shrub for full sun that sports showy flowers and, depending on variety, edible fruit. In autumn its bright green to golden green leaves turn a brilliant yellow. The variety 'Wonderful' is the best known fruiting pomegranate. It requires regular deep watering to ensure fruit production.

Bumald spirea (Spiraea x bumalda) is an easy-to-grow shrub for full to part sun that blooms in pink, white, and magenta from June into fall. Easily maintained, this shrub requires light pruning and removal of dead wood in late winter or early spring. In autumn the foliage turns yellow to orange-red. Varieties 'Anthony Waterer', 'Goldflame', 'Froebelii', and 'Limemound' provide a long season of beautiful flowers.

There are so many magnificent plants capable of providing autumn color in your garden. Try the above-mentioned gems and search out other species. You'll be glad you did!

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