Every tree counts, and what better than one that packs a colourful punch at this time of year? The copious rain we have had throughout the year, combined with hot summer days, has encouraged strong growth and good autumn colour. This is the perfect time to find inspiration.
We asked six head gardeners around the country to tell us about their autumn favourites that, being either slow growing or compact of stature, would suit even a small garden.
The bare-root planting season is upon us, the Woodland Trust has designated November 30 as tree-planting day in support of its Big Climate Fightback, so – to boost the tree appeal of your garden – grab a spade and dig in.
Michael Maltby, Heale House, Wiltshire
“In a small garden, you want a tree to be more than a one-season wonder,” says Maltby. “I absolutely love the North American moosewood, Acer pensylvanicum ‘Erythrocladum’ (above). I am surprised it is not more common: the young shoots are a brilliant coral pink [they would make a good lipstick] and, as the tree matures, the trunk becomes more orange.”
The acer’s large leaves turn a greeny-yellow, veined with the pink, which look most striking. Another acer that Maltby loves is the field maple, Acer campestre: as a native tree, it won’t be difficult to track down; its lovely buttery leaves are a widespread feature in our autumn landscape.
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Steve Porter, Chatsworth, Derbyshire
Porter and his team are adding 40,000 to 50,000 new plants to the landscape and gardens at Chatsworth, including new trees, but he found time to think about his recommendations. “The flowering dogwood, Cornus ‘Norman Hadden’, is one of the best.”
Having produced white bracts in early summer, which fade to pink, these are followed by dangling strawberry-like fruits and the leaves are tinged red in autumn. “It is good all year round,” says Porter. “It has great form, even in winter.”
He also recommends the katsura, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, partly because it is a favourite of his boss, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, and partly because of its yellow, orange and pink leaves at this time of year, with the scent of burnt sugar. “Everybody asks about it,” says Porter.
John Rippin, Bodnant, Conwy
“We have a maple glade that is on fire at the moment: it is looking the best I have ever seen in the five years I’ve been here,” says Rippin. “My favourite small tree is the purple-leaved Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’; it seems to be luminous even on a dark rainy day. I don’t know any other plant that does it. It is slow-growing, so would be fine in a small garden.”
Purple is a favourite for Rippin; he also recommends Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’. It is grown for its purple or pink spring flowers, but the heart-shaped leaves in autumn have won him. “The leaves have an intricate pattern of pinks, purples and yellows; if you get the position right and they are backlit, they glow. They are dramatic when they are lying on the grass – you want to create art with them.”
David Jordan, Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Jordan has many autumn favourites, but among those suitable for a tight space that can be seen in the Abbey winter garden (about to undergo a major overhaul to celebrate its 25th anniversary), is Acer griseum. This, as its name – the paperbark maple – suggests, has fabulous, peeling bark and a gorgeous coppery colour, as well as red and yellow leaves at this time of year. Also for its bark, Jordan likes Betula ermanii ‘Polar Bear’ which has pure white branches as well as “bright yellow autumn colour”.
Jim Jermyn, Branklyn, Perth
“Trees and shrubs have grown because of all the rain we’ve had this year, but they have been slow to colour up. We have had two or three frosts recently, so they are marvellous now.”
For a small garden, Jermyn recommends the tupelo tree, Nyssa sylvatica. “It is slow growing, with the most wonderful autumn colour of reds and oranges.” One of his must-have small trees is Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ (top left). “It has wonderful yellow foliage with red stems; it is quite unique.” As with all acers, it likes a sheltered spot but is unfussy about soil, apart from chalk.
To get the buttery yellow joys of a Ginkgo biloba without the size, he chooses the dwarf form ‘Mariken’, which only grows to 1.5m; it can even be grown in a pot. ‘Vanessa’ is an upright but dwarf form of the Persian ironwood, Parrotia persica, producing a symphony of reds, oranges and purples.
Erika Packard, Parham House, West Sussex
Erika and her husband Tim Miles started as gardeners at Parham in September. She likes the snowy mespilus, Amelanchier lamarckii.
“It is great in all seasons, with beautiful delicate flowers in the spring and a lovely open airy branch structure.” With black berries in summer followed by red autumnal tones, “you get a big bang for your buck with that tree.”
Miles is keen on the crabapple Malus transitoria, which has unusual cut leaves and small yellow fruit in autumn. And, of course, spring blossom. Both of them plump for the rowan Sorbus sargentiana. “Again, like the others, it has great flowers in spring and addition to the autumnal colours [red], it has a nice little brilliant scarlet fruit.”