Debra Prinzing

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Fall design inspiration: foliage, flowers, fruit and architecture

Monday, November 1st, 2010

“It would be worthwhile having a cultivated garden

if only to see what Autumn does to it.”

–Alfred Austin, The Garden that I Love (1894)

Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium'

Whether emulating what you see in nature or combining plants to masterful heights, gardens that excel in the fall are ones that showcase the best of the season. 

There are certain trees, shrubs, perennials, ground-covers and vines that you may not notice during the rest of the year. But somehow, once the temperatures cool and the sun’s arc lowers in the sky (lighting foliage and plant forms from the side, rather than from overhead), a fall glow illuminates – and we see the garden in a new way.  

Last Friday I gave a presentation entitled “Gardens that excel in the fall: Something for everyone” at the Garden Conservancy’s one-day seminar in the San Francisco Bay Area. Called Fourth Quarter Gardens: An August to December Romance, the symposium featured several really inspiring speakers on design, horticulture and the unique gardening culture of the west. 

I was thrilled to be part of this cohort, which included Bob Perry, Katherine Greenberg, Nicholas Staddon, Elizabeth Murray, Chris Jacobson and Brian Kemble. The highlight for me was a tour of Katherine Greenberg’s all-native garden in Lafayette (an East Bay community). It was the three-dimensional, living embodiment of her lecture “Greens, Grays and Golds in a Native Garden.” 

My talk was a visual meditation of what inspires me this time of year: foliage, flowers, fruit and architecture in the landscape. 

I started by sharing the excitement I feel about the season as I design for texture in a new way; find unexpected plant pairings (not just those Halloween hues, either); tend to the harvest and see the bones, lines and structure emerge as leaves fall and flowers fade. My attention is drawn to the aging beauty of what some may call “decay.” Yet those yellowing hosta leaves and nearly-bare branches are a sign to me that the garden in every phase of growth is to be celebrated. 

This lovely melange shows the amazing diversity of fall leaf color.

I also shared a lay-person’s explanation of why leaves change color in the fall. I quoted from Brian Capon’s book Plant Survival

“. . . the cool night temperatures and shorter days of September and October are sure to start the season’s normal color changes in leaves and . . . trigger their falling from the trees. 

“Leaves change color when the green pigment, chlorophyll, decomposes in leaf cells to reveal orange and yellow pigments, present all summer but hidden from sight by the more abundant chlorophyll. 

“In some trees, the unmasking of the yellow-orange pigments is accompanied by production of brilliant red ones, made from sugars and other substances in the leaves. The purpose of this last-minute display of added color is not known.  

“In the green leaf, both green chlorophyll and yellow-orange carotenoid pigments are contained in tiny chloroplasts. Because there is more chlorophyll than carotenoid, the leaves appear green. In fall, after the chlorophyll decomposes, only carotenoides remain to give the leaf its glowing, golden color. In some plants, the leaf cells produce red pigments, anthocyanins, that are stored in the vacuoles. As the anthocyanins collect and mask the carotenoids, the leaf turns red.” 

A lot has been written about fall gardening and much of it focuses on the importance that gardeners in the west do fall planting! 

Witch hazel is espaliered along a lattice arbor at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle.

I embrace and endorse this strategy, since it accomplishes so much that one may not have energy to tackle six months hence. It gets us out into nurseries and weekend plant sales, heightening our sensory response to a plant’s autumn form and texture and its promise of spring to come. The season forces us down on our knees to plan, prepare and place those treasures, brought home with the admonition (at least in the Pacific Northwest) to “plant before frost.” California gardeners want to plant in the fall for an entirely different reason — to capture any winter precipitation for good root establishment. 

If only to think about springtime, I will plant peony crowns in the fall. But then, I pause and remember what occurs after the blowsy bloom of Mother’s Day; and the sultry autumn glory of peony foliage comes to mind. Appreciating both the youth of spring and the maturity of fall is one of those wonderful surprises that comes from having plant lust. 

If you, too, are a fall-planting advocate, then what may be second-most on your mind is the design of an autumn landscape. 

I love the architectural form of "spent" crocosmia blooms. These seed-heads are as beautiful as the flowers themselves.

Seasonal changes, at least at the beginning of the fourth quarter, work their magic here in the west. The light changes, the moisture content heightens, and the foliage reddens. The garden’s edges soften in some places (perennials go to seed; grass plumes explode; greens turn tan) and become more acute in other places (the architecture of deciduous plants is more pronounced; evergreen plants move to the foreground; anything that blooms is undoubtedly noticed as well). 

It’s almost as if the feminine personality of spring and summer steps aside for the more masculine personality of fall. Yet when I posed this theory to my friend Betsy Flack, she argued that “I’ve always thought (fall) was my own season—sort of the ample-bosomed (billowy) matron . . . after Spring’s sprite.” 

Our differing opinions reveal that the autumn garden is one we can all embrace. 

To me, there are four aspects to the 4th quarter garden that I consider when planning, touring and evaluating the well-designed landscape: 

This is some kind of wild-looking oak, isn't it?


Cooling temperatures and shortening days bring out the fall glow we so admire. Yet it’s not just color (golds, coppers, wine reds and dark purples) that I’m in search of. I also consider broadleaf evergreen plants with graphic foliage, as well as conifers that change with the season, taking on their own non-green hues. 

Laura Morton, a Hollywood designer, uses echinacea and asters in this yummy fall combo

Flowering plants: 

If you find a fall-blooming perennial that you like, plant it not once but thrice. 

Some of my favorites include Japanese anemone, heaths and heathers (Calluna vulgaris cultivars are especially gorgeous when the temperatures drop) and asters (A. novi-belgii; A. novae-angliae; A. lateriflorus). 

Fruit: Edibles and ornamentals unify in the autumn garden, lending a sense of “harvest” and hearkening 

This cotoneaster will delight birds and humans alike.

back to the ritual and sustenance of gleaning fruit from the earth. Nuts, berries, pods, seeds, fruit – for eating or just eye-feasting – are essential elements of the autumn garden. Because I am a floral designer, I take particular interest in gathering rose hips, crabapple fruit, seed heads and even spent grapevines (with tendrils and curls) from the garden for use in my vases. 

The yellowing gingko against a pumpkin-colored garage is a perfect fall scene.

Architecture: It goes without saying that structure is the backbone of 4th quarter gardens. Deciduous trees and shrubs, dormant perennials, disappearing annuals . . .they can do their thing and yet the arbors, gates, patios and pathways remain – thankfully. I take special note of the shadow-play created by light as it moves through a garden, catching shapes made by architectural elements and throwing those alluring patterns against walls and fences. 

Here are a few more seasonally-appropriate quotes to enjoy: 

” . . . asters: purple asterisks for autumn.” Conrad Aiken, Preludes for Memnon (1930) 

“Hurrah!  . . . it is a frost! — the dahlias are dead.” R.S. Surtees, Handley Cross (1843) 

A mosaic of autumn impressions: