How to choose and plant a garden tree for brilliant autumn colour
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, too.
But when I look up ‘trees for autumn colour’ online, I 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 head gardener, Stephen Herrington, how to choose the best small garden trees for autumn colour.
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!
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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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. To find an independent nursery near you, see The Independent Plant Nurseries Guide.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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