My top 10 autumn plants – outdoor flora for winter
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The mornings may be dark and light levels are certainly diminishing in the evenings, but there are still a lot of plants for autumn interest, ranging from bulbs to herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees. Many plants may still be flowering from the summer months, like the gorgeous semi-evergreen shrub Abelia x grandiflora, which flowers non-stop from June to October, or perhaps the incredible Weigela All Summer Peach which flowers for a staggering seven months from April to October. Others, however, get into their stride from September onwards.
Meteorologically, autumn is defined as September, October and November, but with warmer summers and wetter winters some plants may flower for longer or shorter, as in the case of the drought of 2022. Thinking about the environment and a plant’s requirements for sun, shade, water or shelter, it makes sense to start thinking about plants that do not demand lots of watering and feeding.
For this reason, shrubs can be a good option, especially those that flower either for a long period or dazzle us with their delights in a short window of opportunity. Shrubs, especially when grown from small plants, get their roots into the soil, anchor the plant and tend to do well through periods of extreme heat and low rainfall.
Many herbaceous perennials, such as echinacea, achillea and stachys will also favour well during dry spells.
With autumn, we expect rainfall, which helps to loosen the soil, waters the plants and contains nitrogen, in its nitrate and ammonium forms, which is instantly taken up by the plant roots or absorbed through the leaves, resulting in a greener-looking garden immediately after rain.
Mark Lane’s top 10 plants for autumn
Arbutus unedo – the strawberry tree
A spreading shrub which looks spectacular in autumn, with white-pink flowers between September and November at the same time as the fruit, produced last year, turns red. The fruit may look like strawberries, but alas don’t taste like them. A brilliant plant for a coastal area. It does, however, do best in a sheltered spot. 8m (h) x 8m (w)
Mahonia eurybracteata subsp ganpinensis ‘Soft Caress’
This is the first mahonia to have spine-free leaves, making it a very tactile plant. It’s evergreen and sends up yellow racemes of flowers from August to October. Plant it near a seating area so that you can continually caress it. It was winner of ‘Plant of the Year’ at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2013. 1m (h) x 1m (w)
Camellia sasanqua ‘Red’ – autumn flowering camellia. This evergreen shrub, looking good for 12 months of the year, is covered in pink-red blooms from October to December. The wonderful thing about this plant is that it’s more compact than others and will grow happily in a large pot in full sun. 3m (h) x 3m (w)
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Calluna vulgaris ‘Teresa’ – Scots heather
From August to October, this low-growing shrub is covered in small magenta buds that partially open all the way up the upright stems. A great addition for pots, borders, alpine beds, window boxes and living walls in full sun. Perhaps plant this below the Camellia mentioned above for a knockout autumnal display. 20cm (h) x 30cm (w)
Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’
Every garden should have at least one viburnum. This shrub flowers from November to March with clusters of fragrant, dark pink flowers on bare stems. Plant it near the front or back door to enjoy its delicious sweet scent. It is deciduous, i.e. it loses its leaves over autumn/winter, but the flowers make up for the bare stems. It will grow in full sun and partial shade. 3m (h) x 2m (w)
Liriope muscari – big blue lily-turf
An underrated, useful plant which will grow in partial or full shade, once established. Evergreen, dark green, blade-like leaves give 12 months of interest, but between August and November it has stiff, upright stems that are covered in deep violet flowers. Use this to edge pathways or to fill that awkward corner of the garden. 30cm (h) x 45cm (w)
Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora ‘Emily Mckenzie’ – monbretia. For some golden flowers, splashed with red, from August to October you cannot beat this wonderful perennial. Plant this in bold drifts through your borders so that they come ablaze with sunshine colour on grey autumnal days. 60cm (h) x 80cm (w)
Rudbeckia fulgida var. sulvantii ‘Goldsturm’ – coneflower
The perfect flowering plant for colour and to attract wildlife into your garden. The large bright-yellow daisy-like flowers can grow to 12cm across with a prominent black cone in the centre from August to October. This is another plant to grow in bold drifts mixed with ornamental grasses for an autumnal garden to be proud of. 60cm (h) x 45cm (w)
Actaea ‘Queen of Sheba’ – baneberry or cimicifuga
For a wonderful, dramatic plant for partial shade, this is hard to beat. Reaching 2.4m in height, towering above most gardeners, this forms clumps of purple foliage, but between August and October pink-white bottlebrush-like flower spikes that gently cascade as they bend forwards, last well into autumn with their faded blooms. A great plant for a dramatic silhouette on dark, cold days, especially when lit from below. 2.4m (h) x 60cm (w)
Colchicum ‘Lilac Wonder’ – autumn crocus or ‘naked ladies’
These hardy bulbs send up goblet-shaped, deep pink-lilac flowers from September to the end of October. The perfect bulb for naturalising in the lawn. This bulb will also flower if left on a bright windowsill, without soil. It’s one of those plants that you have to get down low to enjoy its beauty. Alternatively, plant the bulbs in alpine dishes/containers and place on a garden table. 15cm (h) x 10cm (w)
By choosing just a couple of these plants, you can continue the interest in your garden for the next few months and beyond, in some cases. Never think that gardens only look their best in the summer. With some careful planning, you can have colour, shape, form, texture and scent for 12 months of the year.
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