Fall is the best time to plant shrubs. As the gardening season winds down, it’s the last call for filling in those bare spots in your landscaping with a shrub or two. Discover six shrubs that add those beloved colors of autumn right in your own yard with a beautiful fall garden.
Many gardeners prefer autumn to any other season. The heat and humidity of summer have passed, biting insects are gone, and the leaves of many plants paint the landscape with bold strokes of red, yellow, orange, and purple. It’s also best for the tree. The combination of warm soil and cool air stimulates root growth to help your tree or shrub get established before the ground freezes.
Perennials are beautiful, but once they have finished blossoming and are gone by, it’s the hardworking shrubs which will act as the backdrop. Fall is a good time for planting and many garden centers are offering deep discounts on leftover trees and shrubs.
To choose plants for a fall garden, visit a nursery with paper, pencil, and camera in hand. Take notes and snapshots and ask questions:
Does the plant have colorful berries for winter interest?
Will it attract birds?
How will it look in other seasons?
Recommended Shrubs for Fall
Shrubs are long-lived but also offer up many features that perennial and annual flowers do: flowers, fragrance, leaf color, or pollinator appeal. Here are a few shrubs recommended not only for their autumn appeal but other seasons of interest as well:
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is the perfect autumn shrub, turning golden-yellow in fall and even bearing yellow spider-y flowers in late winter. A native plant hardy to zone 3, it can grow to be 12 to 15 feet tall and wide so give it plenty of room. It’s leaves turn bright orange in fall. Look for the reliable cultivar ‘Arnold’s Promise’. Read more about Witch Hazel, a shrub worth knowing.
Fothergilla is in the same family as witch hazel but blooms later, usually in May before its leaves appear. It has honey-scented white flowers that look like fuzzy bottle brushes. There are dwarf varieties that grow to be only 2 to 3 feet tall, standards that are 5-6 feet tall, or you can opt for a large Fothergilla major that will top out at 10 feet tall. They all have orange-red to bright red fall foliage and prefer a spot that has afternoon shade.
Smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) is a gorgeous shrub in any season. Purple-leaved varieties such as ‘Royal Purple’ or ‘Velvet Cloak’ turn an even deeper shade of maroon in fall. They can grow to be 15 feet tall and wide and are hardy to zone 5.
Blueberries make a wonderful edible hedge. In addition to long-lasting, bright-red autumn leaves, you’ll enjoy its white spring flowers tinged with pink and, of course, its delicious juicy berries. ‘Jersey’ is a late season variety that grows to be 6 to 7 feet tall and bears plenty of fruit. Learn how to plant blueberries.
Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) ‘Brilliantissima’ has bright orange-red fall foliage but also looks good in spring with its fragrant white flowers in spring that attract a wide range of beneficial insects and glossy red fruits that persist into winter for the birds. This native is a great alternative to the invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus). It grows 6 to 10 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide.
Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are my favorite little trees. There are many to choose from, some have red foliage year-round while others change to golden yellow, bronze, or bright orange in the fall. They come in a wide range of sizes too, from 3 foot tall dwarf forms to 15 to 20 foot tall trees. An interesting one to look for is the Full Moon Maple ‘Jordan’. It has yellow-green leaves that turn orange-red in the fall. It grows 15 feet tall and 12 feet wide and does best in a shady location.
A few other options include:
The red-flowered sumac (Rhus coriaria) has brilliant red autumn foliage and fruit clusters.
Gingkos are a graceful ancient variety of tree that turns beautiful golden-yellow in the fall.
More of a tree, the ‘Autumn Brilliance’ serviceberry (a cultivar of Amelanchier x grandiflora) grows only 20 feet tall and has flaming-red fall foliage. It also features white flowers in early spring and sweet, edible berries.
How to Plant Shrubs
In the fall, trees and shrubs are either sold in containers or with wrapped root balls, where the root and soil is wrapped up in burlap (often called “balled-and-burlapped”).
Before you dig a hole, research the plant’s full-grown size and give them the space they need to grow! Also, you don’t want to plant a tree too close to your home or neighbor’s property, which may cause damage to the buildings and tree roots.
Here are pointers on how to plant your shrubs properly:
Dig a hole that’s twice as wide but no deeper than your plant’s container. Take the plant out of the container and test it in the hole. The new plant should sit at the same level or even slightly higher than the surrounding soil.
Loosen the roots on the bottom of the rootball as they’ve probably been in that container a long time; it’s OK to even cut them or break them apart to get them loosened.
Put the plant in the hole, checking that the top of the rootball is not lower than the surrounding area.
Add the soil back into the hole. Gently tamp down to avoid large air packets but don’t pack down or compact the soil.
Water immediately after planting. The soil may settle. You can add a little more soil but, again, do not compact it. t
Spread mulch around your new shrub, keeping the mulch a few inches away from the trunk or stems. Piling mulch against the bark can lead to rot or pest damage. Mulch will help insulate your new shrub’s roots in the winter and keep them cool next summer.
Give your new shrubs frequent, deep watering through the fall. Water just until you see puddles that don’t soak into the ground right away. Do this at least twice a week during the fall and start again the next spring. After the first year, your shrub should be established enough to water regularly.
Shrubs and small trees are the basic building blocks of your garden and there are many more that will steal the show in any season. Check out what your local garden center has to offer and get planting!