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How to design an autumn garden

The end of summer can be a difficult time for gardens as plants begin to lose their lustre and less sunshine and more rain can make a garden look unkempt and unloved. But a well-designed autumn garden can be just as beautiful as one in the height of summer. Some of the UK’s leading designers from the Society of Garden Designers offer their advice for creating a beautiful autumn Garden.

Consider grasses and plants without blooms

Although many plants do bloom in the autumn, non-flowering plants really come into their own later in the year. Grasses are an excellent example says designer Manoj Malde MSGD, providing texture, silhouette and movement that can look stunning in the low autumn light levels.

Miscanthus, Calamagrostis and Pennisetum are all good examples, while Stipa lessigiana, a shorter grass, will add a soft airy quality to a border and act as a good foil for autumn plants. Molinia caerulea ‘Heidebraut’, a favourite with designer Gavin McWilliam MSGD, can also be used to great effect, creating a blaze of colour in an otherwise muted autumn garden.

Mixing perennials with grasses is also a lovely combination says Rosemary Coldstream MSGD, as the dark and sculptural seed heads will create a wonderful late season spectacle standing out against the soft, feathery grass; while Gavin McWilliam regularly uses Deschampia, mixing it with favourites such as ferns to provide seasonal interest.

Take advantage of the low autumn sun

Light is important in the garden at all times of year but as it gets lower at the end of summer it becomes key to designing a garden says Marian Boswall MSGD. Plants that give a vibrant autumn display tend to colour up best in the sun, with trees and shrubs such as Cotinus Grace, Rhus typhina, Forest Pansy, and Maples leading the way.

If you can position the plant so that the low autumn sun shines through the leaves, then you are in for a spectacular treat says Jilayne Rikards MSGD. Grasses, seed heads and trees with peeling bark such as Betula nigra or Prunus serrula can also look wonderful back lit the by autumn sun says Gavin McWilliam. Try to spend time getting to know when and where the light falls, so that you can plant accordingly.

For those whose garden is in the shade, Jilayne Rikards recommends Japanese Maples such as Acer palmatum or Sango Kaku underplanted with an ornamental grass like Haconechloa macra aureola to create a stunning display that will light up the space and help lift the darkness of autumn.

Highlight late flowering plants

There are plenty of plants that can shine in an autumn garden.  Look for unusual varieties such as Cameila Sasanqua Early Pearly, which produces large white flowers from early November, says designer Maitanne Hunt MSGD; or try threading late flowering varieties such as Salvia Microphylla through flower beds to add extra colour when other plants are fading, says Rosemary Coldstream.

The warm vibrant colours of Dahlias which flower well in to the autumn are also wonderful mixed in with grasses says Rosemary Coldstream, while late flowering perennials like Anemone, Asters and slowly changing Sedums will still be blooming late into the season according to Jilayne Rickards.

Celebrate the season with berries

Bare branches can make a garden look untidy so fight back by planting shrubs and plants bursting with autumn berries to provide colour well into the winter. Jilayne Rickards recommends Viburnum opulus, while for Maitanne Hunt one of the the best berry-bearing shrubs is Pyracantha; an ‘unloved’ plant, but one that is resistant, evergreen and looks wonderful in the fall when the flowers become colourful berries.  Saphir Rouge produces rich red tones and lends itself superbly to topiary, according to Maitanne, by far the best way to use it

Make the most of the Kaleidoscope of autumn colour

Autumn can deliver breathtaking colour says Gavin McWilliam, so take advantage of it! Trees such as Acers and Parrotia can be planted to deliver a lovely display of rich orange and red foliage as we head towards winter; while late flowering perennials such as the bold yellow Rudbeckia can add wonderful contrast to more sombre autumn planting.

Verbena bonariensis is another wonderful plant to prolong colour in the garden long into the autumn says Ed Oddy MSGD.  Its light and open structure means that it won’t dominate a planting scheme but planting en masse will form a stunning haze of delicate lilac flowers.  Planted against a dark evergreen hedge such as Yew will really make it pop, and the low autumn sun will create wonderful lengthening shadows on paving.

Turn the lights on 

A well designed garden will allow you to use the space as much as possible throughout the whole year, and as the nights close in a well designed lighting scheme can add real value to your garden by extending the season outside says Tony Woods MSGD. Try lighting seating areas, pathways, drive ways and steps says Gavin McWilliam and highlighting key features such as trees and structural elements within the space.  Clever lighting creates warmth, wonderful shadows and highlights sculptural forms of specimen plants adds Manoj Malde.

Stay warm

Even on colder dry days, when the sun shines there is nothing better than getting outside into the garden to enjoy coffee or read the paper says Tony Woods. Outdoor heaters, fire-pits and fireplaces are an excellent way to extend the use-ability of your garden in to autumn and make a great focal point to a design.

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