I'm always intrigued by folks who look down their noses at our Northern California autumns. "I miss the East Coast," they say, "where there's fall color."
True enough, New England does put on a show. If you're lucky enough to catch it at its peak — which lasts a few weeks at best — it's quite stunning. Typically, the farther north you go the earlier the season begins. Of course, the farther north you go the colder it gets, too. Want to sit outside and enjoy those fall colors in Vermont? Bring a parka.
That's why autumn in Marin is so spectacular: the days are warm, the fog has lifted, and the autumn colors arrive. Not the clobber-you-over-the-head experience, but enough to remind you that summer is a thing of the past. As an added bonus, there are numerous flowers that bloom during these sublime months, with the result being a landscape that can best be described as a fall bouquet.
It's not difficult to create a landscape that glows in fall. Just adding a few specimens can transform your summer garden into a fall microcosm. This is where you'll want to zero in on the deep hues of red, orange and yellow. No pastels allowed no matter how cheap they are at the nursery (save those for spring).
Yes, you could paint your garden using only fall foliage. But why limit yourself? Choose a combination of foliage and flowers and the result will be a garden that pays tribute to the season. Here are a few to consider.
I defy anyone to find a plant with redder autumn leaves than California's native grapevine (Vitis californica "Roger's Red"). It was recently determined that this vine is actually a hybrid between the native vine and the non-native wine grape (Vitis vinifera). But don't let that stop you. This vine is stunning, providing unparalleled fall color and, as an added bonus, tantalizing grapes that birds love. Plant it, and stand back: it's a vine after all, reaching lengths of 30 feet or more. Don't have that much space? Try its cousin, Vitis californica "Walker Ridge," which tops out at 6 to 10 feet and sports both red and orange leaves.
If finding space for a climber is out of the question, but you're still craving those red leaves, then consider a Dogwood tree (Cornus florida). In addition to offering lovely spring flowers, Dogwoods turn burgundy red in fall.
If you prefer a shrub, the California native Red Twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) may be a better option. This elegant shrub colors up beautifully in fall (and bares its bright red stems in winter). Native to riparian areas, this dogwood appreciates supplemental watering.
Let's not stop at leaves. One of fall's most knockout firecracker red flowers is our native fuchsia (Zauschneria or its new name, Epilobium canum). This shrub is a sight for the eyes — and a drink for the hummingbirds. Blooming through summer and well into fall, the native fuchsias are vigorous growers and come in a variety of sizes and shapes, often with grey foliage. They like heat and, although not absolutely necessary, a little extra water in summer.
The most fluorescent orange imaginable comes from the Chinese Pistache tree (Pistacia chinensis). Seriously, this one looks backlit. It's also a reliable tree, working equally well in lawns or garden beds. One variety of the common smoke tree (Cotinus "Grace") has particularly striking fall foliage, taking on both orange and purple hues. Its burgundy flowers during the rest of the year make it a striking accent plant.
As for flowers, it's hard to beat lion's tail (Leonotus leonurus), a drought-tolerant shrub that grows 3 to 6 feet tall and sports deep orange blooms through summer and fall. As an added bonus, deer don't like to munch on this plant.
I'm always astounded by the towering, colorful warmth of a Ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) in autumn. Unbelievably, this tree dates back to prehistoric times, 200 million years ago, when it grew all over the planet. Today it's native to two regions in China, but thanks to our welcoming climate it has become a regular visitor. This is a slow grower, with very distinctive leaves, that grows to about 50 feet. Be sure to get a male Ginkgo, since the females produce foul-smelling fruit.
If you have room and are a native purist, consider our state's lovely sycamore tree (Platanus racemosa), whose fall foliage turns deep gold before dropping. This is a speedy grower, jetting up to 75 feet. It takes wind and heat, but it enjoys some water. Note that sycamores may be allelopathic, meaning their roots and leaves emit chemicals that create inhospitable areas for planting underneath. Don't try to garden under a sycamore because you will be disappointed (and take note on your next hike how there is rarely much growing under sycamores).
There are some excellent yellow flowering plants in autumn, including the upright spikes of the torch lily (also know as the red hot poker or Kniphofia). Check out the diminutive "Candle Light" and 5-foot giant "Yellow Cheer." Another no-brainer is the ever-present yarrow (Achillea), which comes in a variety of colors if you don't want yellow. It provides the perfect landing pads for butterflies.