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Garden Q&A: How to plan fall colors in the garden?

Q: What native species would you suggest for glorious fall foliage color in the garden? A lot of resources describe blooms but not always what these plants look like at the end of the year.

A: How long do you have? We could be here awhile as I’m a big advocate of planning for multi-season interest. I’ll list great candidates by plant type, though keep in mind that non-cultivars can vary greatly in showiness based on individual genetics coupled with environmental influences, and they may not be the same hue each year. Preferences each species has for light levels and soil type, plus vulnerabilities to deer browsing, will help you decide which suit your site best. Most species listed happen to be shrubs or trees, but a few vines and perennials also put on a good show.

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Among trees, you’ll get great reds, burgundies, and scarlets from red maple, black tupelo, several oak species, sumacs, dogwood, and sourwood, though the latter barely occurs here naturally and can be tricky to grow.

Oranges predominate with sassafras and serviceberry (which can also be red); baldcypress glows rusty-orange and hickories trend caramel.

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Golden yellow is a common color, with notable displays possible from pawpaw, some hickories, river birch, and willow oak. Some species don a medley all at once, or are more potluck with their hues, like sweet gum and American hornbeam.

Fallen leaves of a wild Red Maple (Acer rubrum), in early November. Photo by Miri Talabac.
Fallen leaves of a wild Red Maple (Acer rubrum), in early November. Photo by Miri Talabac. (Miri Talabac)

Shrubs with reds and oranges include sumacs, dogwoods, chokeberries, and viburnums. Blackberry, blueberry, and huckleberry offer a surprising bonus of fall color, commonly burgundy and scarlet.

Yellows burst forth from summersweet, spicebush, and witchhazel (often while it’s blooming). Species with a range of potential colors include buttonbush, virginia sweetspire, and sometimes winterberry holly.

Lest we forget exceptional vines, the eagerly vigorous Virginia creeper and much-maligned poison ivy can be spectacular. I’m not suggesting you grow the latter next to your mailbox, but if you have the space, a volunteer left in an out-of-the way spot is a great beacon of color and a boon to wildlife. More practical would be crossvine, which can turn a glorious plum while it retains leaves in winter.

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Perennials with fall foliage changes include switch grass and little bluestem, which can blush plum-purple, burgundy, or golden; the bluestem can get almost pinkish-lavender on its way to finishing warm mocha. Purple muhly grass can get so shrouded in clouds of ruby-mauve-pink seed heads that you can’t see much foliage. Flowering spurge, a great baby’s-breath accent by itself, can turn a wonderful orange or scarlet. Another underused species, Bowman’s root, can display multiple colors at once. Heuchera and its cousin tiarella can surprise you with a change of colors they retain through winter, usually in the plum-maroon palette. Even our dainty woodland stonecrop, while evergreen, gets in on the act by adopting hues of faded pink or bronze.

Q: My Eastern white pine is shedding some needles throughout its branches but otherwise looks healthy and grew well this year. Should I be worried?

A: Probably not if there are no other signs of distress. Evergreens do actually shed foliage, just gradually instead of all at once the way deciduous species do. Older, inner leaves (needles) drop, usually after yellowing or turning brown first. This is normal as individual leaves only live for a few years, and they are constantly being replaced each spring by younger growth on the branch tips. Fallen pine needles also make a handy free mulch!

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.

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