Fall Foliage Color in the Conifer Garden
Who doesn't love the brilliance of fall color as deciduous trees and shrubs settle into dormancy? They sure don't go quietly into that good winter. One of the wonderful aspects of using conifers in the landscape is that they seamlessly move from star players to supporting cast. In this shot, 'Lime Glow' barberry is sheltered by the weeping branches of a large Juniperus cedrus (Canary Island juniper) and sits in front of a PIcea omorika 'Pendula Kuck' (Kuck's weeping Serbian spruce). The greens from the conifers (and from the other evergreens) set off the flaming barberry foliage for maximum impact.
In this shot of the same clump of barberry, the shrubs are sandwiched between the yellow leaves of an Acer pseudoplatanus 'Nizetii' and a group of Agave geminiflora 'Spaghetti Strap'. Other conifers in the scene add more green and cool off the hots. It's not nearly as rich or interesting if you leave out the conifers:
Finally, here is the stand of barberry from a distance, looking like coals glowing in a hearth of conifers. The barberry gets star billing twice a year: in spring, pushing new foliage, and fall, when it ignites. In summer, it is a reliable background for other plants. It takes winter off. The conifers, on the other hand, work all four seasons!
Most people fall in love with the flowers on the snowball bush, which, like the barberry, gets two starring seasons. For this gardener, the fall color is even better than the flowers, as that pinky-orange is hard to beat. This plant is situated between a Cedrus deodara 'Snow Sprite' on the left and a Pinus heldreichii 'Satellit' (satellite Bosnian pine) on the right. Both conifers have a blue cast to their needles, making this combo very different in tone than the red-green of the previous grouping.
Jewel tones abound in this shot, with a Pinus sylvestris 'Watereri' providing the emerald, Loropetalum chinense Ever Red, the amethyst and a PIcea pungens 'Waldbrunn' (in the background, above the 'Wateri') the sapphire. Rubies and citrines make up the background fire, crackling away in the hearth.
The Acer palmatum 'Tobiosho' in the shot above is in the opera's final act, and the diva is going out with a flourish. Normally a sedate, well-behaved player, it leaps into fall, almost overnight, with such pizzazz that it is difficult to take your eyes off it. One of the reasons that fall colors display themselves so pleasingly is due to the effect of the low, soft light, which allows the colors to blaze without being washed out by the relentless, overhead sun of summer. This shot, taken late in the afternoon, shows what happens when you train a spotlight on deep orange-red. In another month, the maple, and the two Ginkgo biloba (L to R: 'Troll' and 'Gnome') will have lost their leaves and the conifers and succulents will carry the whole show. Right now they have to step out of the spotlight.
So the premise of this article is that conifers make a great foil for dazzling deciduous fall foliage, right? But not all conifers are content to leave the limelight to their angiosperm brethren. Take a look at Rheingold arborvitae above. An attractive soft gold for much of the year, it adds texture and interest to mixed plantings of conifers and other woody plants. But in winter, the color becomes more pronounced and other plants have to take a back seat. In the above pairing, the x Mangave 'Inca Warrior' to the left is generally the eye-catcher, due to its almost metallic structure and sheen. But the ever-deepening gold on the arborvitae allows it to take its place as an equal member of the eye-candy club.
Now that colder weather has driven many gardeners inside for the winter, it is a great time to evaluate what works and what doesn't in your garden. If you don't have conifers and evergreens, think about how adding a few would give your garden not just more winter interest, but more autumn interest as well. Think about pairing deep greens, blue greens, and even golds with the other colors in your garden. There are over 5,000 dwarf conifer cultivars. You are sure to find the perfect ones for you!
Related article(s): The Sequel to the Ever-Popular Summer: Autumn!