Autumn fires: five ideas to create a garden that’s ablaze with autumn colour

Garden owner and plantswoman, Sarah Pajwani, shares her thoughts on the best way to create a blaze of autumn colour in the garden.

Autumn can be something of a forgotten season in the garden with attention focussed more on bulb planting for glorious spring displays or planting to improve the following summer. But, with a little planning, autumn can be one of the most colourful and exciting times of all to enjoy just for itself.

Here are five thoughts that give my garden at St Timothee in Berkshire colour right through the season.

One: Dial up reds and yellows

When I think of autumn, I think of walks in woods and of yellows, oranges, reds and browns – but rich, warm and mellow so more saffron, sienna, crimson and russet. These are the colours I try to include in my planting. There are usually plenty of browns from decaying perennials and lots of green from the grass but dialling up the reds and yellows gives energy and impact to the borders.


And the biggest colour impact in my garden comes from some amazing shrubs – all of which are fast growing and reliably hardy, tough plants.

  1. Cotinus Coggygria Royal Purple – purple foliage in summer which turns a fiery, deep red in November.
  2. Cornuses. Loved for their vibrant, bare stem brilliance in winter, they in fact start their performance in autumn with red stemmed Cornus Alba Sibirica turning a wonderful mix of colours from green through yellow to a deep wine red.
  3. Probably my favourite shrub of all is the wonderful Cornus Midwinter Fire. Bright lime green foliage throughout summer that turns a glorious butter yellow from late September and often lasts right until the end of November.
  4. Cotoneaster Horizontalis. With bright red berries in September, changing jewel-like leaf colour in October before its final fling of fiery red foliage in November, there are not many shrubs that give so much.


Two: Repeat what works

Not only does it make life a good deal easier by repeating plants that like your soil and conditions, but it gives a sense of cohesion to the garden and helps draw the eye on and around your space.

All of the above shrubs I use many, many times. In the circular beds I call ‘The Big Circle, I have six of these Cotinus – hard to capture all six in a photo but three just about visible here – their rich red colour offset by the green of the lawn and the turning foliage of the towering Oak tree above.


With Cornus Midwinter Fire, I’ve used it en masse as a hedge to become the backdrop for two island beds. Shown below on the gloomiest, foggy November day, it still provides that much needed lift and counter to the browns and russets of decaying perennials.


And if you follow these two Cotoneasters up that right hand path, they lead onto yet another mass of fiery red.


Three: Echo colours at different levels

In the view below, my eye is drawn to the fiery red of the Cotinus at the far back but it’s helped towards this by several other spots of russet and most notably by Heuchera Chocolate Ruffles, a valuable front-of-border evergreen that lines part of the curved path. Echoing colours at different levels with different plants is another way to give cohesion and balance and to lead your eye around the garden.


Four: Contrast red and yellow for maximum impact

Where the Big Circle border meets the Midwinter Fire borders, the fiery red of the Cotinus is backed by the bright yellow of the Cornus. By late November, when most of the trees have lost all their foliage, this combination brings some much needed vibrancy and warmth. 


Five: Plant scenes

My main concern in the garden is to look at something I see as pleasing. I don’t use many unusual plants. Instead I rely on the mix of colours, shapes, textures and layers to form what I see as pleasing scenes.

Four massive Pampas (three visible below and a fourth to the far left) form a dramatic backdrop to the pond. They help lift the eye to the trees and to the beautiful butter yellow of the Liriodendrum Tulip tree. The colour of the tree is then echoed lower down by the line of yellow from the Cornus Midwinter Fire hedge.  So in this scene I’ve dialled up the yellow with the Cornus, repeated both the Pampas and the Cornus and echoed colour at different levels.

I hope this gives an idea of some of the plants and planting that I love in my garden in autumn. For any keen gardener, it feels a shame not to be trying to squeeze joy from every day and every season.


You can join Sarah when she hosts her small group ‘Talk & Walk’ events which include tea and cake with pre-booked tickets only held on a variety of seasonal topics. The next one Ornamental Grasses and the Autumn Garden takes place on Thursday 2 November.
Click here for more information and to book your place






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