Mild days and cool nights this fall promised a spectacular show of color, and the promise came true.
“This fall has been the best year for color in recent memory,” said Neil Bell, a horticulturist with Oregon State University Extension Service. “The weather has been perfect for the brilliant show we’re enjoying.”
It takes a slow progression of cool to warm days and cool but not freezing nights to bring on such a glowing display, he said. That kind of weather brings on dormancy slowly and leads to a breakdown of chlorophyll – the green color in leaves – exposing the bright autumn colors.
Although we think of trees (check out this story for 10 suggestions) for fall interest, shrubs also offer rich colors. Now is a great time to look around for your favorites. Most nurseries still have a good selection of plants or you can keep a list to buy in spring.
If you get them now, there’s still time to plant unless your soil is saturated.
“Fall is a great time to plant because the soil is still warm and plants will get a good start establishing a root system,” Bell said. “And after you plant and water your new shrub, the fall and winter will take over the responsibility of watering until next summer.
You’ll want to follow his recommendations on how to plant your new shrub:
- If roots are circling the pot, cut off any mass of roots on the bottom of the pot and scuff the sides of the root ball.
- Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball, but only deep enough that the top of the root ball is level with the soil.
- Place plant and backfill the hole with soil. Don’t add any organic amendments to the backfill soil. Soil amendments should be done to the whole flower bed, not just planting hole.
- Water well.
To get you started, Bell offers six shrubs with amazing fall color.
Burning bush (Euonymus alatus): There’s a reason this shrub is so common: The fall color is unbeatable, probably the best of the best, Bell said. The can’t-miss-it red gives the plant its name. Burning bush is an adaptable plant that suffers few problems and will grow in just about any kind of soil, but needs good drainage. Though it can take shade, the color is more intense when it grows in full sun. Winter interest comes in the form of interesting ridges or “wings” on the stems. Although burning bush is usually pruned to keep it shorter, a mature shrub can grow up to 15 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Bell suggests using it as a dense hedge. In some states, especially the Northeast, Euonymus spreads so viciously, it’s on noxious weed lists. Not in the Northwest, however, where it is beloved by many. Hardy to Zone 4.
Blueberry (Vaccinium hybrids): Everyone knows blueberry for the fruit, but it’s really a three-season beauty with flowers in spring, berries in summer and brilliant fall color. “You can’t miss a blueberry field if you drive by in fall,” Bell said. For showy display and a better harvest of berries, plant more than one blueberry cultivar. Make sure your soil is on the acid side (low pH) for blueberries to thrive, which often requires amending with sulfur before planting. There’s a lot of color variation, from bright yellow to orange to bright-dark red, so visit a nursery now to choose which you prefer. Plant size also varies, so check labels before you buy. Hardy to Zone 5.
Bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’): The stems of this bloodtwig dogwood turn a radiant red in winter, but the bright gold foliage in fall is not to be missed. ‘Midwinter Fire’ qualifies as a three-season plant with fragrant, white flowers in spring that attract butterflies and other pollinators; gorgeous golden fall color; and bright red stems in winter. The best color comes if it’s planted in full sun, but this dogwood can take partial shade, as well. To get the best winter color, cut stems to the ground in early spring. Conversely, the flowers are only borne on the previous year’s stems. To get both, Bell suggests cutting back half of the plant’s stems and leaving the rest. This shrub grows to 5 to 6 feet tall and wide and makes an excellent deciduous hedge. Regular water is needed. Hardy to Zone 5.
Doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’): A list of colorful fall shrubs wouldn’t be complete without doublefile viburnum. The fiery red foliage rivals burning bush for its dramatic display. Not to be outdone by fall, spring brings a mass of white flowers in flat clusters, making it look like snowcapped branches. Later, it turns out red berries delicious to birds. Given enough room, this large viburnum (6 to 8 feet tall; 8 to 10 feet wide) will develop an elegant tiered form. Even in winter, the horizontal shape gives it an interesting aspect. Be very judicious with pruning as it can ruin the plant’s tiered branching. Grow in full sun or light shade. Will need only occasional summer water once established. Hardy to Zone 5.
Witch-alder (Fothergilla major and F. gardenii): Both the regular size and dwarf version of Fothergilla turn on quite the show in fall with fierce orange-red foliage. Spring is another season to appreciate when they develop heaps of white, bottlebrush-like blossoms that smell like honey and attract a whole range of bees and other pollinators. Though it will grow in shade, witch-alder will have the brightest color in full sun. The larger one (F. major) reaches 6 to 10 feet tall and grows almost as wide, while the dwarf (F. gardenia) grows 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. They prefer moist, well-drained soil. Birds and butterflies make a beeline to both shrubs. Appropriate for mixed borders, foundation plantings, mass plantings, woodland gardens or an informal hedge. Hardy to Zone 4.
Panicle or PeeGee hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculate ‘Unique’): Let’s put a different spin on fall with a shrub that has fall color in both foliage and flowers. Though many panicle hydrangeas have flowers that turn to various shades of rose and pink as summer turns to fall, ‘Unique’ may be the best. It boasts 10-inch long, pure white flowers shaped like cones that turn a clear pink in fall and sit upright against multi-colored foliage. It will put out those pretty flowers from July through October. This large shrub can get anywhere from 6 to 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide. They respond well to pruning to manage their size. You can even prune it into a single-trunk standard, if desired. Since they bloom on the current season’s growth, panicles can be pruned in spring without losing any flowers. Unlike other hydrangeas, panicles will tolerate full sun. Hardy to Zone 3.