How to choose and plant a garden tree for brilliant autumn colour

October 25th, 2020
Posted In: Gardening know how

Trees are the best way to add autumn colour to your garden. And they add structure and vertical interest to even the smallest garden. Plus they help improve air quality and offer support for wildlife.

The best time to plant trees is in the autumn and early winter.

But if you look up ‘trees for autumn colour’ online, you may feel overwhelmed by the choice. Why would you choose one brilliant acer over another? (And should you choose an acer at all, although they are the most outstanding trees for autumn colour?)

A tree is a big investment, both in space and money. There’s nothing more frustrating than planting a tree and looking forward to it growing, only to have it die on you after a few years. And I know. I’ve lost several maples in this garden.

So I visited Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens, which is famous for its autumn colour, to ask the then head gardener, Stephen Herrington, how to choose the best small garden trees for autumn colour.

Autumn colour at Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens

Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens in Sussex has 240 acres of gardens, lakes and woodland. Many people buy an annual ticket and walk there regularly. Leonardslee is open for the November 2020 lockdown, but entrance tickets must be pre-booked.

Leonardslee is also well known for its glorious rhododendrons in spring. If you’re interested in growing these magnificent spring flowers, see Stephen’s advice on choosing and growing rhododendrons here. And, by the way, several rhododendrons also have very good autumn colour, too, so they are not just spring plants!

Cork azalea

Cork azalea (Rhododendron quinquefolium) is a good rhododendron for spring flowers and autumn colour.

The first steps to choosing a tree for autumn colour

Stephen advises that you start by establishing how tall you want the tree to grow and what colour you would like its autumn leaves to be.

Nyssa sylvatica or black gum tree

Nyssa sylvatica, otherwise known as Tupelo or Black gum tree, is one of the trees Stephen recommends for autumn colour in middle-sized gardens. Its late season colour changes from yellow through to gold and red, so you get a full range of autumn shades in one tree.

Then think about the position in the garden and do some research. Is your garden very dry, very windy or very sunny, for example. Those conditions will affect which trees will do well. There’s a post here that explains why you get better autumn colour when you plant your tree or shrub in a sunny spot.

One of the best autumn trees is the acer, and there are hundreds of varieties. But acers like neutral to acid soil, so they won’t grow in every garden. ‘And most acers prefer some shade,’ says Stephen. ‘A few are happy in a sunny spot, but most are not. And they won’t grow well in a windy area.’

Growing conditions for acers

Acers (also known as maples) have some of the best autumn colour, but they like neutral to acid soil. And they don’t like very windy or sunny gardens. If your soil isn’t right, you can grow an acer in a pot – use ericaceous compost.

Should you buy a container-grown or bare root tree?

In late autumn, when all the leaves are off the trees, you can buy bare root trees. These are smaller and cheaper than container-grown trees, but they soon catch up. Bare root trees can only be planted in late autumn or early winter, while container grown trees can theoretically be planted at any time of year. ‘Although I wouldn’t recommend planting a tree in a hot summer,’ says Stephen.

Not all trees are available to buy ‘bare root.’

It’s worth knowing that all plants, including all trees, can be grown in pots. So if you want to buy a tree for autumn colour and it isn’t suitable for your soil, then you can grow it in a pot. You can also keep trees in large pots if you have to move often. This is one of the tips in this interview with Jamie Butterworth on choosing trees for small gardens.

Where to buy small garden trees

Stephen also advises you to do some research on where to buy your trees.

He buys British grown trees whenever he can, because a tree that has been grown in your climate and soil is more likely to do well in your garden. And transporting plants around the world helps pests and diseases to spread too.

There are a number of tree suppliers who grow trees in Britain. These include Hillier and Barcham Trees.

Trees sold at garden centres may or may not be grown locally. Local specialist nurseries usually grow their own trees, but it’s worth checking.

How to plant a garden tree

Several young trees have failed in my garden. And after talking to Stephen, I’m sure that’s because I was careless either with planting or after-care.

‘In garden centres, they sometimes add more compost to the top of the pot,’ says Stephen. ‘This means that the ‘collar’ of the tree – just above the roots – is concealed by the extra soil or compost. If you then plant it with the collar below the depth of the soil, the tree won’t do so well. And if it grows taller, it may snap at the collar in a high wind.’

He advises that you brush away the compost to reveal the collar. Then plant the tree so that the collar is absolutely level with the ground.

‘Plant the tree in a large hole and add compost. I also add mycorrhiza,’ he says.

Mycorrhiza are mycorrhizal fungi, a fungus that naturally occurs in the soil and helps the roots take nutrition and moisture. You can add commercial mycorrhizal fungi – the one I use is called Empathy Rootgrow, and it’s also endorsed by the RHS. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, which means I may get a small fee if you buy but it won’t affect the price you pay. And I only recommend products I use myself.

Trees for autumn colour

Most acers (maples) prefer some shade, which is why they grow well in woodland settings. But town and city gardens can be shady, too, so it’s worth considering them for your garden. Stephen particularly recommends Acer ‘Flamingo’ for brilliant small garden autumn colour.

There’s more advice on how to plant a tree here from garden designer, Jamie Butterworth.

Look after a tree after planting it

Water the tree well after you’ve planted it. Then Stephen advises that you need to add some fertiliser and regular watering until its roots are established well enough for it to take what it needs from the soil. That may take 2-3 years.

‘If you have a dry summer in the first couple of years, then you may need to give a newly planted tree a bucket of water a week,’ says Stephen.

Sorbus or Mountain Ash

Sorbus, otherwise known as Rowan or Mountain Ash, is another excellent garden tree for autumn colour. Stephen particularly recommends Sorbus ‘Eastern Promise’ which is a small garden tree, with white flowers in spring, pink fruit and purple/gold leaves in autumn. ‘The tree that just keeps on giving,’ says Stephen. (This isn’t Eastern Promise shown here.)

More about choosing and planting trees for small gardens

One of the most popular books about trees for small gardens is Alan Titchmarsh’s How to Garden – Small Trees.

If you’re looking for advice on trees for privacy, see this post. And see here for my own favourite small garden trees for autumn colour.

Before thinking about replacing a tree in your garden, it’s always worth doing some research on whether you could trim or cut your current tree to turn it into the right tree for you. This post tells you how to seek advice from a tree surgeon or an arboriculturalist (or just a man with a chain saw).

And it’s also worth knowing how you would like the tree to look. ‘Transparent pruning’ is a method of pruning that is particularly suitable for deciduous trees and trees in small gardens. Find out more about it in How to Prune Garden Trees for Privacy and Light.

More about Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens

Leonardslee was originally the home of the Loder family, who discovered, grew and developed a significant number of rhododendrons in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Sir Edmund Loder also had a collection of rare wild animals, such as wallabies, deer and beavers. These can still be seen today (the rhododendrons, deer and wallabies).

The gardens have recently been renovated after ten years of being closed, so the public are now able to walk the 240 acres of woodland and gardens again. There is also a new vineyard, growing Britain’s first commercial Pinotage grape.

People who live locally buy annual memberships, so they can walk through the gardens and woodland on a regular basis, enjoying both the blazing spring colours and the equally stunning autumn hues.

Rock garden at Leonardslee

The gardens at Leonardslee have been restored, including this beautifully peaceful rock garden.

This video has the interview with Stephen, plus a walk around Leonardslee’s stunning autumn colour:

Pin to remember choosing trees for autumn colour

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2 comments on "How to choose and plant a garden tree for brilliant autumn colour"

  1. SkyPerma says:

    I love the changes of color that deciduous fruit trees bring to the garden, and of course want the fruit, so I always choose fruiting trees to provide that lovely autumn color – bare rooted seems cheaper so I tend to put them in towards the end of winter when I can pick them up cheap.

    1. Yes, fruiting trees are wonderful, especially crab apples.

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