Colors flood Maryland's fall landscape

From roadsides to back yards, trees and smaller plants turn on their bright lights

In The Garden

October 05, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

For years, fall has been almost a gardening afterthought. We pour our creative energies into spring and summer but come fall, we troop up to New England for autumn's spicy colors. Which is kind of silly, since it could be argued that fall is the best season we've got here in Maryland.

The trees here do a kaleidoscope number -- ever so slowly -- which gives us weeks to enjoy the view as we hurtle down the highways. And there are some wonderful shrubs, shrubby trees and woody perennials both native and non-native, to add gorgeous color to our gardens.

Bunches of bushes

Even the smallest yard has space for at least one fall shrub. For example, a single espaliered firethorn (Pyracantha) flattened against a wall or fence is like a horticultural painting. Spangled with berries, it takes up little space but can brighten an otherwise drab corner for months.

"Pyracantha is a good all-round standby," says Anne Hedgepeth, retail manager at Speakman Nursery and Land-scaping in Still Pond. "The berries come in either red or orange and the dark green foliage lasts a long time."

Though some Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) -- that colorful fall favorite -- can grow 40 feet tall, there are superb shrubby varieties too. Acer palmatum dissectum, which blazes like a botanical bonfire in autumn, tops out at about 7 feet tall. Vase-shaped 6-foot-tall Acer 'Sango Kaku,' not only lights up the fall scene with saffron foliage, but has bright coral / red stems all winter. Bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sangui-nea) and red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) offer fall and all-winter color through their stems -- either red or yellow. But heavenly bamboo (Nan-dina) is a four-season treasure.

"It's really beautiful all year round," says Catherine Mahan, principal in the Baltimore landscape architects Mahan Rykiel Associates, "and it's great for cutting."

Nandina has cascading spring blooms and finely carved, year-round leaves and stems that gradually morph throughout the season from greenish blue (depending on variety) to an impressionistic rose, scarlet and wheat. Begin-ning in fall, it's laden with big clusters of berries -- either blood red or sunshine yellow -- that feed the birds all winter. But be sure to check on whether the variety you fancy is a spreader. Some nandinas are well behaved, others not.

In addition to imports, there are lots of wonderful native shrubs for fall. And in the past few years, they are getting much easier to find.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous native holly whose berry-lined branches add a kind of pointillistic blush to the fall and winter landscape. Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) is a stream-bank native with fragrant white spires of bloom in spring and claret-and-crimson foliage in fall.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) has small clusters of unusual violet-lavender or white berries.

"They look from a distance like flowers," says Rene Beau-lieu, Internet content manager for White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn. "I grow pink fall-blooming colchicums beneath them."

Beautiful native Cotinus americanus is commonly called smoke tree because its "blooms" -- blowzy, pompom-like inflorescences -- envelop it in a smoky haze. While it's lovely year round, it has especially nice fall color -- red-burgundy, rich purple, crimson and more, depending on variety. Additionally, it's incredibly tough.

"It's actually on our list of bulletproof shrubs," says Mahan. "It has almost no pests or diseases."

Fothergilla gardenii, while not exactly bulletproof, tolerates both sun and shade. It also has lovely flowers, but its biggest draw is its fall foliage.

"It's spectacular," says Beaulieu. "There's yellow, orange and red all on the same leaf."

Viburnum is a multiseason native beauty that has a slew of varieties to choose from, virtually all with lovely (often fragrant) spring bloom, fall berries -- in ink, wine, crimson or white, depending on variety -- and fabulous fall foliage.

Viburnum dentatum 'Blue Muffin' is a shorty with bright blue beadlike berries that the birds love.

Fragrant V. x burkwoodii 'Mohawk' has brilliant orange-red fall foliage, V. dilatantum 'Cardinal Candy' has thick clumps of bright red berries that start in midsummer and last through early winter.

Planting and care

In general, these shrubs prefer fall planting and are low maintenance, but ask about specific cultural needs before you buy. For both newly planted and established shrubs, be sure that they are getting sufficient water (taking into account our weird weather this year) -- the equivalent of an inch a week for new planting until the ground freezes. Established plantings need less (and possibly none this year).

Bear in mind that winter winds dry out the needles and leaves of evergreen shrubs such as nondeciduous hollies.


Speakman Nursery and Landscaping

Rte. 292

Still Pond, MD 21667


White Flower Farm

P.O. Box 50

Litchfield, CT 06759


Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, SC 29695-0001


Homestead Gardens Inc.

743 W. Central Ave.

Davidsonville, MD 21035



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