Autumn colour for small gardens (and terraces)
I woke up in the night to the welcome sound of rain. However little it is, it is very welcome as Berlin is still a long way off from where it should be in terms of annual rainfall. It is the first rain this month, and even during September and October we did not receive half of what we normally get as rainfall. For that we’ve already tanked over 50% of the average sunshine for November, whilst the two previous months had more than 140% (all this according to the Wetter Kontor).
The plus side of all this has been the most spectacular autumn colour, which is set to go on: Trees are in no mood to give up too soon, and why should they. Our gardening team is always fantastic at keeping the Garden Academy immaculate: they are permanently sweeping the paths and in between the plants so that the entire place always looks cared-for and tidy which is really wonderful. Which is why on Tuesday morning when I came in through our back gate, I was really grateful for the fact that we are closed on Mondays and only a skeleton staff is there to water the plants. For once no sweeping had taken place for over 36 hours and I was greeted by an immaculate golden yellow carpet of lime tree leaves. I just stood still and enjoyed this stunningly simple luminous beauty. By lunchtime it had been diligently swept away and carefully stockpiled: Every last leaf is saved and used as winter protection for the few un-sold trees and shrubs at the end of the season, and for the newly potted David Austin Roses that have already arrived and are cosily tucked in between two glasshouses. Under their protective blanket of leaves, they will have time to root through by next spring.
Autumn colour for small gardens
On my late summer travels through other people’s gardens I so often am greeted by gardens that just sadden me as I am presented by green shrubs, which have no promise of any attractive autumn colour or any berries that will bring the landscape alive for the end of the season. I can see how they will just slide from dull green summer vegetation to even duller green then brown and finally nothing by the time they drop their leaves. What a pity as there are plenty of plants that given a little sunshine will colour up beautifully for the late season. Particularly in small gardens it is important that plants do more than flower nicely for a few weeks of the year. When they can give you something to look forward to at the end of the season, they become extra precious.
Small trees with great autumn colour
A great favourite remains Amelanchier lamarckii although it seems to have become more susceptible to mildew in recent years. Its beautiful buds, white flowers, edible berries in July and then wonderful orange-red autumn colour are bonus after bonus. The great advantage is that they can be pruned for example as multi-stemmed umbrella-form, thus becoming an excellent feature plant for the garden.
Colourful big trees kept small
Even in the smallest garden it is important to include trees, as their height will help to create a sense of space and can make a garden feel much larger than it is. They will also create a feeling of privacy and intimacy which are much needed in most small spaces.
Trees that lend themselves well to pruning in order to keep them compact are to be found in the Rose family. Hawthorns are a good example, but crab apples are ma favourites. There is a large range of decorative apple trees with fruits in varying sizes, ranging from the size of a currant to almost commercial apple size. Some more palatable than others. Malus toringo ‘Tina’ grows more like a compact shrub, reaching about 1,5 to 2m, covered in autumn in numerous small red fruits the size of a currant. We have used Malus ‘Evereste’ espaliers as screening in small gardens where we wanted to provide a sense of privacy, without creating too much shade. The same tree cut into a round ball becomes home to possessive blackbirds that defend their territory when hunger forces them to eat the orange-red little apples in late winter. Maybe not as spectacular in its colouring but still a beautiful tree for small spaces is Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’. In Sissinghurst it is allowed to grow freely, I have seen them lightly trimmed at the bottom, I have also seen them trimmed into neat umbrellas. Its silver foliage which gives it a great Mediterranean character is now yellow. Don’t hold your breath for the small green pears: they fall from the tree quite early, and not even the birds show any interest in them.
Each year thousands of people go to admire the autumn colour in Japan. Much of this would also work in your garden as Japanese maples make ideal trees for small gardens. Their architectural habit, attractive foliage, excellent autumn colour and often attractive bark makes them ideal as architectural focal point. Suitable varieties are too numerous to list, so look out one that you fall in love with. The same goes for the Japanese cherries. One particular one brings me great joy is Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ as this one starts flowering late autumn, and will continue to do so till early spring. If frost catches the flowers, no worries: its reserve buds which will open up when the temperature rises again. Because of this it does not produce the delightful “cloud” effect when in flower, but does a little over a very long time when not much else is going one.
Colourful flowering shrubs for small gardens
Staying with Japanese Cherries, Prunus ‘Kojou-no-May’ is a must for the small garden. This forms a compact shrub, very early flowering, with a neat habit and great colour ranging from yellow to red. Viburnums never disappoint either. Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ will reach 2,5 meter or more, but has an upright habit, so one can underplant them well. Like the winter-flowering cherry tree, it will start flowering late autumn as they throw off their orangey-red coloured leaves, and continue to flowers until late March, early April. The wedding-cake bush Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ is unsuitable for small gardens as its horizontal spreading branches take up too much space. In recent years more varieties have come on the market to join the more compact cousin V. plicatum ‘Watanabe’, all of which are well worth giving a home in your garden. In the hydrangeas there are two particular ones I am very fond of. The flowers of Hydrangea paniculata ‘Wim’s Red’ turn dark pink as they fade, whilst the foliage fades deep red, but Hydrangea quercifolia has the best leaves of all, with attractively shaped and textured leaves that turn a deep wine red in autumn.
Interestingly shaped shrubs with great autumn colour
One of my favourites for autumn are the deciduous Euonymus as all are stunning in autumn. Euonymus hamiltonianus which actually forms a small tree with light crown and is deep, dark wine red at the moment. E. alatus ‘Compactus’ is another stunner.
The Dogwoods, Cornus are all stunning too. The red-stemmed types are useful for small gardens as they benefit from being pruned hard regularly as the new shoots are the ones with the attractive bark. Cornus alba ‘Sanguinea’ is one of the very best. Some Dogwoods grow into big trees, but the dwarf from of Cornus controversa ‘Carpe Diem’ is ideal, also for larger roof terraces, as it will only reach 1,5m high, with a spreading habit.
Autumn colour for acid soils
A number of ericaceous plants (belonging to the heather family) are suitable for the small garden and produce great colour. A delightful small tree I really love is Enkianthus campanulatus with its upright but light, airy structure. As alternative for Box we have used the shrubby E. perulatus clipped into round domes. Its small white flowers come before the leaves in early spring, and in autumn the foliage takes on fluorescent colours. A rarely seen shrub is Zenobia pulverulenta, with unusually large ericaceous white bells and silvery grey foliage which is now turning yellow. During winter its peachy coloured stems remain attractive. The deciduous azaleas never fail to bring fire to the autumn scenery.
The delicious (and very healthy) blueberries also belong to this plant family and are spectacular at the moment. Vaccinium corymbosum ‘Golbtraube’ is dark red, ‘Northland’ has all shades from yellow to orangy red. It is worth planting several varieties as cross pollination will produce more fruit.
Treat yourself to something that makes you look forward to the end of the season and celebrate it with a great firework display of colours!