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Blazing the trail for autumn
7:00am Saturday 29th September 2012 in Homes & Gardens
A look at some of the trees and other plants which will be providing us with magnificent autumn hues - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week
By Hannah Stephenson
A rich tapestry of colour should be enveloping our landscape over the next few weeks as leaves turn golden, orange and even red, thanks to a massive growth of foliage during the wet summer followed by cold nights.
The trees and other plants which will be providing us with magnificent hues include the maple and Japanese maple, native oak trees, Nyssa sinensis and Parrotia persica (Persian ironwood). The winter-flowering cherry, stag's horn sumach, sorbus (wild mountain ash) and varieties of cornus can also paint a palette of vivid colours.
Following a wet summer, the recent warm weather has resulted in the production of lots of chlorophyll and increased sugar levels in trees. When the night-time temperature falls, it sends a message to the tree to stop growing and then the leaves will start turning, breaking down the chlorophyll to reveal autumnal pigments in shades of red, orange and yellow.
Venturing out on autumn walks may give you inspiration to grow some colourful specimens in your own garden. Maple, vine and mahonia leaves offer shades of red, while sedum flowerheads provide subtle russet tones which will stay on the plant well into winter.
In larger gardens use trees carefully so that their rich hues are a highlight rather than just a small part of an extremely busy planting scheme. Keep green as your main colour in the garden, as if you cram it with coloured foliage it can be far from restful.
Some trees take on more refined, subtle shades, such as yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) with its beautiful buttery yellow foliage, or the common beech (Fagus sylvatica), which turns a glorious shade of copper.
If you are going to plant a maple, avoid planting it in windy, exposed sites as its fragile leaves will be shredded. The best time to plant is autumn, when the soil is still warm, to give the trees time to establish before winter sets in.
Maples thrive in well-drained soil enriched with some well-rotted garden compost and will do well in full sun or dappled shape, and are ideal growing in the gentle shade of larger trees, provided their planting hole isn't completely swamped with the roots of the larger specimen. Dig in leafmould to give the tree a boost. They shouldn't need much pruning, just snip out any dead shoot tips as the buds begin to open in spring.
Here's five of the best trees which you shouldn't be without in autumn:
:: Cornus kousa 'Satomi': This amazing flowering dogwood offers something for every season. In autumn the leaves turn fiery red and orange, while large, deep-pink, star-shaped bracts appear in late spring. It also bears strawberry-like fruits in late summer that continue into winter.
:: Nyssa sinensis: The deciduous leaves on the Chinese tupelo provide a wide array of autumn colours, from mellow yellows to fiery reds. It thrives in acid soil and you'll need to give it plenty of room as it grows up to 10m (30ft) in height and width.
:: Sorbus x 'Joseph Rock: This popular small tree was introduced to the west after it was found in China in the early 20th century by the famed plant hunter, Joseph Rock. This Chinese mountain ash has cool green, feather-like leaves which turn fabulous shades of blood red in autumn before falling. Its stunning autumn colour is complimented by large clusters of bright yellow fruit.
:: Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade': Seen either as a shrub or trained as a small tree, this form of our native hedgerow spindle boasts a combination of bright red autumn foliage, turning purple as it ages, which colours at the same time as its generous crops of red and orange fruits. It's an adaptable plant, happy in most reasonable soils in sun or light shade and growing to 3m (10ft).
:: Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum): The heart-shaped green leaves of this dainty woodland tree turn to rich colours of yellow, orange and red leaves in autumn and produce the sweet scent of caramel or candyfloss as they fall. This tree, which works well as a stand-alone specimen, should be planted in soil enriched with organic matter in a sheltered spot, as the coppery young leaves are prone to spring frost damage.
Best of the bunch - Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
Of course, these wonderfully elegant trees are the jewel in the crown of autumn and there is a variety for every size of garden, whether you want to plant them as part of a scheme or as a stand-alone specimen in a pot.
Good container varieties include Acer palmatum var. dissectum 'Garnet', with its feathery, garnet-coloured leaves that turn bright scarlet in autumn and look as if they have been shredded. Its rounded, compact habit makes it a perfect focal point for a small garden, particularly in a container.
Other good varieties include A. palmatum 'Bloodgood', with its deeply lobed purple leaves, A. palmatum 'Sango-Kaku', whose green leaves turn to yellow in autumn, and A. palmatum 'Osakazuki', which produces fiery scarlet foliage in autumn.
Acers are happy in neutral to slightly acid soil in sun or dappled shade, but avoid placing them in an exposed spot, as cold winds can burn their delicate foliage.
Good enough to eat - Growing garlic
Autumn is the ideal time to plant garlic as it needs a few weeks of cold weather to grow well.
Buy bulbs specially cultivated for planting, rather than supermarket cloves, to have a better chance of reaping a good-quality harvest.
Plant bulbs in a sunny site in well-drained soil, breaking each bulb into individual cloves and plant each one 8-10cm (3-4in) apart, with 30cm (24in) between rows, so that the tips of the cloves are just below soil level.
If you want to get them off to a quicker start, plant the cloves in module trays with large cells and keep them in a cold frame for the winter. They can then be put in the ground in spring. Water them in dry weather until the foliage dies down in late summer, then lift and dry the bulbs before storing them in a cool, airy place.
Save bulbs from a healthy crop to replant them the following year.
Three ways to... Look after alpines
1. In autumn remove dead foliage from the plants and clear fallen leaves to stop pests sheltering under them.
2. Top up surface chippings, tucking them under rosette plants to help deter slugs and improve drainage around the neck of the plants, to prevent them from rotting in winter.
3. In winter, protect delicate plants from wet weather by covering them in an inclined sheet of glass or transparent plastic to deflect rain. Don't use cloches as alpines need plenty of fresh air.
What to do this week
:: Continue to plant up winter pots, adding bulbs to extend the season of interest into spring.
:: Take cuttings of lavender by pulling whole shoots away from the main stem with a heel. They can be rooted directly into gritty soil outside, or in a cold frame.
:: Take hardwood cuttings of privet, potentilla, rosemary, berberis, laurel and holly.
:: Feed your lawn with a low-nitrogen fertiliser sold as autumn lawn feed, and repair small bare patches by sowing seed.
:: Thin out oxygenating and floating plants which have outgrown their space in the pond.
:: Move evergreen shrubs which are in the wrong place while the soil is still warm and damp.
:: Start pruning climbing roses when the flowers fade, removing dead or diseased wood first.
:: Dig up bulbs and corms of non-hardy summer varieties to store in a dry, frost-free place over winter.
:: Sparingly water potted cyclamen in the greenhouse that were dried off for summer to encourage them back into growth.
:: Plant out hardy primulas raised from seeds or divisions.
:: Sow hardy annuals including cornflowers, poached-egg plants and California poppies outside now for flowering next year.
:: Lift and dry any onions still in the ground and bring them into a cool, dry storage space before wet weather sets in.
:: Sow winter lettuce in shallow drills and cover with cloches.
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