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Autumn's Colour Finale

Before the muted tones of winter set in, autumn in the garden can truly be a firework display. crack

Autumn splendour is always the grand finale of the growing season, as leaves turn vibrant shades of yellow, orange and deep red, while berries provide further interest - and not just for the birds. So, if you are now looking out on a bare garden with little colour, think about the ornamentals you could plant to add some pizzazz to the scene and contrast well with each other. Autumn colour shows up best with a solid, dark background such as conifers and evergreen shrubs, so bear this in mind when planning.

Trees should be used carefully so that their effect is a highlight rather than just a small part of a busy planting scheme. Green is still the most important colour in the garden and should therefore be the most prevalent, so don’t overdo it with bright-leafed plants or the effect will not be restful.

The ornamental cherry (Prunus sargentii) is a wonderful specimen whose young leaves are red, turning to dark green. In early autumn they become brilliant orange-red and finally a deep red. The leaves don’t drop at the first hint of frost, but last longer on the tree.

A smaller tree is the Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), which grows to eight metres and whose leaves turn to a patchwork of orange, bright red and purple-red in autumn, although it needs acid soil for good leaf colour.

Combine trees and shrubs of different hues. The rich, deep reds and burgundies of Japanese maples such as Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ contrast beautifully with the yellowing leaves of silver birch, while Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengi) provide additional warmth with their bright orange, lantern-shaped fruits, ideally in a large shrub border in a woodland setting. Acers should be grown in moist but well-drained soil. The foliage colour is best in dappled shade, although full sun can be tolerated. Ideal specimens for a pot include A palmatum dissectum ‘Garnet’, whose leaves open bright red and then deepen to a rich garnet colour. This deciduous acer is very slow growing - up to 1.8m in 10 years - and looks great alongside a pond or in an ornamental planter.

Plant perennials such as bearded irises at the front of the display for structural foliage from spring to autumn, and for flower colour earlier in the year. If you don’t have room to add more plants to your borders, select a Japanese maple in a pot for warm autumn colour. Choose a container at least 30cm in diameter and a compost comprising equal parts John Innes No 2 potting compost and a soil-less multipurpose compost. Add lots of drainage material in the base of the pot and top-dress the compost with gravel.

Shrubs can also provide dazzling foliage tints and flowers. Look out for Euonymus alatus, the spindle bush, which is a world away from the compact, variegated evergreen forms we use for shady gardens and winter hanging baskets. This one is deciduous, but produces spectacular autumn colour, producing a molten crimson display. It is medium-sized, fitting into most gardens.

Other good choices for autumn colour include Hebe ‘Autumn Glory’, which produces purple bottle-brush flowers which can last until Christmas, and the oak-leafed hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), whose leaves turn purple in autumn and hang on to the plant for ages.

If you have a wall which looks bare in the cooler months, train a colourful pyracantha along it, such as P ‘Orange Glow’, which produces clusters of sizzling orange autumn berries and white spring flowers. This evergreen shrub has a vigorous, dense and spiny habit and can also be planted as a barrier hedge. Train it like a cordon, and in years to come it will reward you (and the birds) with masses of colourfulberries. Other shrubs with colourful autumn fruits include Berberis x carminea ‘Pirate King’, Callicarpa bodinieri var giraldii ‘Profusion’ and Cotoneaster salicifolius ‘Rothschildianus’.