Designing for autumn Colour with Simon Rickard

What is autumn?
Autumn is hands-down my favourite season. With its fresh mornings, sapphire blue skies and golden light, the garden just never looks prettier. But what is the season we call ‘autumn’?

The northern hemisphere understanding of autumn is a time when nature clocks off for the year. Birds migrate to warmer climes, mammals get ready for hibernation and trees shed their leaves in preparation for winter.

Here in Australia, it’s a completely different story. In many ways, this is a time when the bush comes back to life after its summer siesta. Native shrubs begin to flower, suddenly full of honeyeaters. Forest eucalypts flower en masse and hum with bees. The fruiting bodies of fungi pop up everywhere.

Indigenous Australians have a more nuanced, regional understanding of the season which follows summer. To the Djapwurrong and Jardwadjali traditional owners of Gariwerd-Grampians, it’s Gwangal-moronn, the season of honeybees. To the Nyoongar traditional owners of Perth, it’s Djeran, the season of adulthood. To Dharawal people south of Sydney, it’s Marrai-gang, the wet-becoming-cool season.

Learning the subtleties of your local version of ‘autumn’ will help you choose appropriate plants, develop realistic expectations, and create a garden which complements this lovely time of year when the exhaustion of summer is finally over, but the chill of winter has not yet set in.

Design

Autumn gardens don’t just ‘happen’. If you want your garden to have distinct autumn highlights, you have to design it that way.

There are two opposing forces at work in the autumn garden: growth and decay. Many northern hemisphere plants are in a state of decay prior to winter, while many southern hemisphere plants are just waking up from their summer dormancy. With that in mind, we can create vignettes in our garden unlike any other time of the year.

Gardening Climates

To have ‘autumn’, you also need to have ‘winter’. Winter means not only colder days, but shorter days, too. Northern Australia doesn’t really experience ‘winter’ in this sense. So autumn, as gardeners understand it, is confined to southern Australia.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of climate in southern Australia where some version of ‘autumn' can be expected. Let’s call one ‘temperate’, and the other ‘subtropical’, for want of better terms.

‘Temperate’ areas are those which get a proper winter (Diggers CZ8-9). That is inland areas, including Canberra and all of our inland regional cities, as far south as Hobart and and as far north as Toowoomba. Summers may be wet or dry in these areas, but all experience reliably frosty winters.

Areas which don’t experience frosty winters (Diggers CZ10-11) we will call ‘subtropical’. This includes the ‘dry subtropical’ or ‘Mediterranean’ climate extending from western Victoria west to WA (including Perth and Adelaide), and the ‘humid subtropical’ climate of coastal areas from southeast Queensland through NSW to Victoria, incorporating Sydney and Melbourne.

Autumn gardens in these two climate types have very different flavours, because of the plants which can be grown in them.

Temperate climates

The ‘temperate’ climate zone gives our best approximation of the northern hemisphere autumn. It is in these regions that the best autumn foliage colour occurs. As night time temperatures drop and days shorten in April, chlorophyll in the leaves of deciduous trees breaks down, unmasking yellow, orange and red pigments (called xanthophyll, carotene and anthocyanin). This causes the trees to turn their brilliant colours. 

In moister parts of the ‘temperate’ zone, we can grow those poster children of the northern hemisphere autumn; Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) and American red maples (Acer rubrum). One of the most common deciduous trees is Liquidambar styraciflua, which rarely produces good colour in Australian conditions, being either unsatisfyingly insipid or murky. There are many better choices of tree than liquidambar. For larger gardens, the North American tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) has stoplight red autumn foliage, while its brilliant orange Chinese relative (N. sinensis) is a useful scale for smaller gardens. If you have a really big space, some North American oaks have reasonable autumn colour, too, such as Quercus coccinea, rubra and palustris.
What if you don’t have a big garden? And what if you live in a drier area? There are still lots of good autumn trees and shrubs for these situations. The cashew family (Anacardiaceae) contains many such plants - true Rhus species (not to be confused with the poisonous ‘rhus tree’, Toxicodendron succedaneum), Cotinus, and the Chinese pistachio (Pistacia chinensis) are all a good size for backyards, and they love the drier parts of the ‘temperate’ zone.

Many deciduous edible plants have good autumn colour, including many crabapples, some pears, medlars, chestnuts, walnuts, cherries, and best of all, high bush blueberries, which are worth growing for autumn colour alone.

Fruits and seed heads are at their maximum in autumn. Crabapples, rugosa rose hips, spindle bush fruits (Euonymus species) and the seed heads of grasses such as Miscanthus and Calamagrostis, are all enjoyed by native birds. Make sure that plants you’re considering for their seeds and fruits aren’t weedy in your region.

 

Pistacia chinensis is one of the best autumn colour trees for dry climates. 

Highbush blueberries are among the best autumn colour shrubs for temperate climates.

Even though many plants are producing their fruits and seeds in autumn, others are in full flower. Perennials such as easter daisies (Aster and Symphyotrichon), flower spectacularly if you can give them enough water throughout summer. If you can’t, don’t despair. Salvia azurea, Epilobium canum (syn. Zauschneria cana), and of course Hylotelephium (syn. Sedum) are perfect for you.

For those with more subtle sensibilities, native CorreaBanksia and Grevillea, whose flowers tend to hide amongst the foliage, open their first shy flowers in autumn. Oleaster (Elaeagnus x ebbingei) hides its tiny beige flowers, too, but their sweet perfume carries for many metres. The equally-fragrant sweet autumn clematis, Clematis maximowicziana, completely engulfs itself in white, perfumed blossom in mid autumn.

Bulbs are the stars of early autumn. Just when everything is dry and dusty and you think you have failed as a gardener, up they pop. Beginning with Cyclamen hederifolium, Amaryllis belladonna and Colchicum in early March, carrying on with true autumn Crocus in April, and then by Nerine which flower through to coincide with the earliest daffodil species, such as Narcissus cantabricus, in May. It’s quite an extravaganza, yet autumn bulbs always seem to be overlooked in favour of their spring cousins.

Berries and seed heads add a seasonal touch to autumn gardens (Malus ‘Golden Hornet’)

Subtropical climates

In ‘subtropical’ areas, ‘autumn’ looks a little different from temperate areas, but no less beautiful.

Autumn foliage colour is harder to come by in the absence of crisp autumn nights. Chinese tallow wood (Sapium sebiferum), crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia) and Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) all do a reasonable job. They never achieve the retina-searing hues of ‘temperate’ areas, but still enough to lend an air of autumnal nostalgia. The edible pistachio (Pistacia vera) has surprisingly good autumn colour in Mediterranean climate, and persimmons are among the best autumn colour trees for subtropical climates. Late autumn is also  the time when many succulents are at their most colourful. Cotyledon orbiculata is at its whitest, Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ its blackest, and Euphorbia rigida its bluest.

There are plenty of autumn bulbs for subtropical areas, but you probably haven’t heard of them because they are not common in British gardening books. South American Zephyranthes and Habranthus, and their South African relatives Cyrtanthus and Nerine flower generously in sunny spots, while Clivia and Hedychium light up shady patches.

Many subtropical Mexican salvias, such as Salvia involucrata, S. leucantha, S. semiatrata, and the rare yellow S. madrensis, are at their best in autumn, as is their handsome South African relative, Plectranthus ecklonii.

Also from the great floristic kingdom of South Africa come Aloe. Aloes crank up in autumn and continue through winter, as does that most elegant of all subtropical autumn flowering shrubs, Camellia sasanqua. Old-fashioned Luculia gratissima spreads its sublime fragrance from heavy bunches of pink flowers, and Abutlion, which flower on-and-off from spring, have a definite moment in autumn.

If you live in southern Australia, don’t pass up the opportunity to plan an autumn peak in your garden. Regardless of where you are, by choosing appropriate plants, you can create something of which you can be truly proud. 

Subtropical autumn gardens look different from their temperate counterparts, but no less beautiful. 

All images where taken and supplied by Simon Rickard. 

Browse our autumn garden range

Autumn is an exciting time in the garden full of promise, colour & contrast. No matter the size of your garden there is something for everyone.

Browse our vast range now. 

More about Simon Rickard

Simon was head gardener at Diggers until 2009, and now works as a garden communicator find out more here.

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