BRILLIANT AUTUMN SUGAR MAPLES(Acer Saccharum) LINE THE BANKS OF THE "WELLS RIVER" WELLS RIVER, VERMONT

The Self-Taught Gardener: Autumn leaves

This year, trees that have suffered from a lack of water may present us with an array of muted browns. Is it a lack of water, or election-year ennui, I wonder?

For so much of the year, gardeners work to provide color in their gardens. Then fall happens, and color in the landscape takes on a life of its own. Vibrant autumn hues of burgundy, orange, crimson and yellow take hold. This year, trees that have suffered from a lack of water may also present us with an array of browns and thus play a muted part in the symphony that is autumn in New England (Is it a lack of water, or election-year ennui, I wonder? Or more importantly, is it the trees and their display, or is it my own perspective on this season and my concern about the future of the nation, the environment, and things to come?)

The reds of a Japanese stewartia’s fall foliage are the result of the production of anthrocyanin in the bright light of the fall. This chemical is not produced until late in the season and is responsible for these crimson tones which glow when backlit by the low-lying sun of autumn.
The reds of a Japanese stewartia’s fall foliage are the result of the production of anthrocyanin in the bright light of the fall. This chemical is not produced until late in the season and is responsible for these crimson tones which glow when backlit by the low-lying sun of autumn.

It’s curious that, as gardeners, we don’t try to manage this autumnal display in the way that we approach the rest of the gardening season. When we select plants, we are often happy that their foliage takes on new hues as the weather cools late in the season, when chlorophyll production slows down and causes the green color to recede, allowing the underlying yellows and oranges to show through (and as other metabolic changes bring anthrocyanin and red to the fore.) But while we love the serendipity of what we label the autumn leaf show, we rarely attempt to plot out this seasonal display in the way we think about the contrast and complicity of flowers in midseason, or even of the tulips that we order to plant in the garden the very season that fall foliage comes into its own. I love the way orange and purple play off of one another in flower arrangements. I often intermix the almost black ‘Queen of Night’ with ‘Orange Princess,’ so I can see this combination in the spring garden. Yet, I don’t think of placing a doublefile viburnum near a sugar maple to get the same effect on a grander scale, even though when I come across such combinations I am taken away by their beauty.

The pumpkin tones of this maple may seem unnatural when on a politician’s head, but seem at home in the New England woods during the election season.
The pumpkin tones of this maple may seem unnatural when on a politician’s head, but seem at home in the New England woods during the election season.
The fall tones of doublefile viburnum leaves are often overlooked when plants are sited in the garden, but really stand out late in the season.
The fall tones of doublefile viburnum leaves are often overlooked when plants are sited in the garden, but really stand out late in the season.

I have struggled to understand why I have not developed an approach to plant selection that takes this glorious season into consideration, and am sorry to say that the best answer I can come up with may display a character flaw that I would prefer not to admit, but in which I fear I am not alone. Taking fall color into consideration involves long-term planning and not just thinking of what is directly in front of me at the moment (and how does this relate to an election year, I wonder?) So often, we buy plants for our gardens in the spring or early summer, drawn in by their promise of flowers and colorful emerging shoots, with little thought of what the future holds. In the case of the woody plants that we associate most strongly with fall display, we may imagine the shade that their mature forms will cast or their structure — the weeping form of a camperdown elm or the vaselike shape of an American one, for example. We might even consider the beauty of the camperdown’s chartreuse flowers in spring, but we give little thought to the soft yellow of its leaves later in the season, which seems so far away at the time of purchase. And besides, fall is beautiful no matter what. This last statement is made despite our lament every autumn that the foliar display will not be as spectacular as the season before, a belief which always melts away for me on a crisp blue morning when, seemingly overnight, the world has been transformed into a backlit canopy of orange sugar maples, scarlet oaks, and golden chestnuts outside my bedroom window. A moment to be savored like no other, to be sure. And perhaps a small comfort as we enter the election cycle: life continues on, regardless of what we do.

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The orange of this Japanese maple would be lovely paired with the deep tones of an oak-leaf hydrangea and both would thrive in similar conditions.

Every fall, I am determined to take note not only of the colors, but also of when they occur, so I can think about what to plant beside the Japanese stewartia that takes on its deep red tones at season’s end, so late, in fact, that I assume it will never come before the first snow. I take leaves and press them in books, thinking that I will create a fall calendar of foliar display, organized by timing and color, which I will consult in the years ahead when I am selecting a

‘Ruby Slippers,’ a cultivar of our native oakleaf hydrangea, was selected for its colorful fall foliage and its compact form. It might be worth a trip to Oz to acquire this plant, but it is also readily available closer to home.
‘Ruby Slippers,’ a cultivar of our native oakleaf hydrangea, was selected for its colorful fall foliage and its compact form. It might be worth a trip to Oz to acquire this plant, but it is also readily available closer to home.

new shrub or tree for my garden. Can I combine the orange dissected leaves of ‘Aconitifolium’ Japanese maple with the deep purple of oak-leaf hydrangea, to get a seasonal effect in the fall similar to what I aim for with my tulips in the spring? I daydream about it as I lay in my spring bulbs, sprawled on the ground under the trees, furiously working out my plan for spring display, all the while knowing I am taking one of our most heavenly moments in the year for granted, and loving it all the more for the fact that it allows me to do so. I am even more impressed that it performs well despite an unappreciative audience, a lesson in good behavior that our electioneering politicians are likely to ignore. But again, this is the majesty and the grace of the season and nature, and I hope to learn something from them.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.