"Fall is Just Another Blooming Season," by the Whistling Gardener

For some plants the fall season is their time in the spot light. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.
For some plants the fall season is their time in the spot light. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

There are lots of reasons why we are drawn to different plants. Most often it is because we like their flowers. We purposefully design our gardens to allow us to incorporate as many different colors of flowers as we can for our viewing enjoyment during the spring and summer months, but we rarely consider doing the same thing for the fall. I would submit that this failing is, in part, due to us not thinking of fall color as another “blooming season,” yet in many ways that is precisely what it is.

For some plants the fall season is their time in the spot light. Take the common “Burning Bush” for example. This is a pedestrian shrub that is of such little consequence during the growing season that most gardeners wouldn’t give it a second thought. But for two weeks in the month of October it is absolutely glorious, clothed in a rich red cloak that is every bit as spectacular as any blooming rhododendron is in the spring. The only difference between these two plants is the source of the color, one coming from flowers and the other from leaves. I like to call these “foliar blooms.”

Red twig dogwoods are another example. Our native twig dogwood is pretty ho-hum during the growing season, but come October it transforms into a mixture of dark reds and purples that will knock your socks off for a two to three week period. As an added bonus, once these colorful leaves drop it will show off its glossy red twigs all winter long. Some varieties like “Winter Flame” actually have twigs that are a combination of red at the base, orange in the middle and yellow at the tip.

Katsura trees don’t even have a recognizable flower, so some of us might think, “What’s the point in planting one?” But if you walk into a garden this time of year with a Katsura tree, the first thing you will notice is the sweet smell of cotton candy wafting through the air. When you find the source, you will discover a delightful tree with smallish round leaves painted in an array of colors. Everyone should find a place in their garden for a Katsura tree.

If you are tight on space, consider the dwarf form called “Hanna’s Heart” which originated from a local grower in Mt. Vernon. It is named after their daughter who was born with a heart defect. Following some very long and difficult treatments at Children’s Hospital, Hanna pulled through, and this tree was named in her honor.

Little Henry Sweetspire (Itea virginica) is a North American native. This compact plant is quiet through the spring, when all the other shrubs are blooming like crazy, but about the time that those early birds have fizzled out, Little Henry becomes covered in a blanket of fragrant white flowers. As fall approaches the foliage turns a stunning garnet-red. Here is the kicker, that garnet-red foliage stays on Little Henry almost all winter, which is way longer than those blooms on your favorite rhodie or azalea.

Hopefully I have persuaded you that planting for fall interest is a worthwhile consideration. The color we get to enjoy that comes from the foliage, rather than the flowers, is every bit as pleasurable and is a welcomed surprise before we slip into the grey shades of winter. Check out the options at your local garden center and remember that it is perfectly safe to plant this time of year.

Sunnyside will also be hosting a free class “Putting The Garden To Bed” next Saturday, October 28, 2017, at 10:00 am.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA and can be reached at

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