Creating a rich and fulfilling garden can be tricky and it takes some thought and planning. There is a basic principle, though, that can really help you build a garden that is interesting for as much of the year as possible – I call it the ‘double-act plant’. In a nutshell, look for plants that aren’t limited to a single point of interest – great flowers perhaps – but that have at least two. Especially in small gardens this is a simple way to enrich your planting enormously. This doesn’t mean you should never plant something like a spring-flowering magnolia for example, which is a one-act play, when that single display is so amazing and eye-catching. Plants that bloom over a long season, like Encore Azaleas or Knockout Roses are also excused from this requirement – they make up in time what they lack in variety.
One valuable type of ‘double-act’ plant is all those that have constant colored foliage as well as blooms, but you do need in a garden plenty of plants with green leaves. Fall can be a wonderful time of year, so in this blog we are going to concentrate on a very useful double-act, and that is plants that bloom well, but also have excellent fall colors, so that you don’t have to rely only on maples and oaks for that – trees that can be too large for many gardens.
Planning Your Garden with Double-Act Plants
It can take a little more time and planning to get the most out of plants that are interesting twice a year, because everything around them will be very different at those two times.
One way is to focus on the blooms and place the plant in its best position for that, and simply treat fall color as a bonus. But with a little more thought you can do better than that.
How about a bed that is seen clearly from your important rooms, where you treat the fall color as the big thing, and the blooms as secondary? After all, we are usually indoors more in fall, and views from windows become more important.
One great effect is a bright fall shrub against a background of dark evergreens, so place these plants among the evergreens around your home, or with a hedge behind them.
Fall is the time to throw color around, so mix up those golds with deep reds, purples and scarlets.
Don’t forget to consider where the sun falls. For the best colors on just about any fall plant you need plenty of September sun, and that might determine where you plant too. Not only does the golden light of fall show those fall colors to their best, direct sun makes the plant respond with the strongest tones.
Some of the best Double-Act Shrubs
Oak-leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) – this shrub, which is an American native plant, is a terrific and under-used plant. In the best forms the conical blooms rival those of the more well-known Panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata). These are larger shrubs, often reaching over 6 feet, although some of the newer forms are more compact. Not only as these plants more sun and drought resistant than any other hydrangea, they have wonderful fall colors, with their handsome lobed leaves turning dark shades of reds and purples. Use them in sunnier places where other hydrangeas fail, and that sun will also bring out their best fall colors.
Flowering Dogwoods – these larger shrubs and small trees are well-known for their amazing white or pink flower display and spectacular fall colors of reds and purples. but a lot of people don’t realize there are two main kinds. The American dogwood (Cornus florida) blooms first, but it has suffered greatly from disease in the last few decades. If you live in an area where that is a problem, consider instead the Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa var. chinensis) as an alternative. Flowering a little later, against a backdrop of fresh green leaves, this tree is just as spectacular, both in bloom and in fall, with the advantage of disease resistance and a general greater hardiness and ease of growing. In warmer zones consider the Empress of China dogwood (Cornus capitata subsp. angustata ‘Elsbry’) which keeps its rich purple leaves all through winter – a kind of ‘endless fall’ – until they are replaced in spring by new green growth.
Brandywine™ Viburnum (Viburnum nudum ‘Bulk’) – viburnums are often overlooked, perhaps because their flowers are white, and fall into the ‘attractive’ rather than the ‘spectacular’ category. But considering how useful they are, and the bonus of fall color, they deserve a lot more attention. Why not start with the Brandywine Viburnum, a three-trick pony, with flat heads of fragrant white flowers in spring, beautiful red fall leaves, and an amazing display of berries in late summer and fall, that are pink, blue at purple all at the same time. Compact, reaching only about 6 feet tall, this is an easy, shade-tolerant plant that also grows well in wet soils.
Goldflame Spirea (Spirea x bumalda ‘Goldflame’) – for a smaller shrub around the garden, it is hard to beat this one for one of the best seasonal juggling acts around. It is so colorful in spring, with red leaves, followed by yellow and chartreuse all summer, and then a spectacular fall of coppery reds and oranges. Oh, right, there are clusters of purple-pink flowers all summer too, as a bonus offering. If you don’t have this plant in your garden, you are missing the easiest and most reliable color available.
Redbud – spectacular in early spring when the bare branches are covered in brilliant purple-pink blooms, the redbuds are great double-act shrub because they all have marvelous fall coloring, with red, orange, purple and gold all at the same time. The most commonly grown is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), which does well in cool to warm zones, but less well in heat and dryness. For those conditions you need the very similar looking western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) or the Texas redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis), both of which are much more sun, heat and drought resistant. The variety of Texas redbud called ‘Traveller’ is especially lovely, as it is a weeping tree, which is something not seen to over with fall color (except in Japanese maples, which are another plant with varieties that give to the garden more than once a year)
This short list is just a sampler, so when shopping for shrubs make it a habit to see what additional features they have that are valuable in the garden. When you get down to your final choices, considering which ones give you a double-act is very worthwhile.