Colorful Trees and Shrubs for Fall

Make your landscape look vibrant this time of year.

Burgundy-red leaves of Japanese maple ‘Bloodgood’ turn bright crimson in fall, standing out against the yellow beech leaves behind it.

It’s fall, and all around us trees and shrubs are ablaze with glorious color. If you’d like to bring a little of that dazzle into your own landscape, now is a good time.

Fall is fine for planting

For many, fall signals the end of the gardening season, but fall is actually great time for planting. After a hot summer, it is a pleasure to work outside in the fall. The days are cooler, but the soil is still warm and there is usually more rainfall. This all adds up to less stress on the plants and the planter.

Dr. Cathy Neal is a UNH Cooperative Extension professor and landscape specialist. As a tree and shrub expert, much of her work involves plantings that support wildlife and pollinator habitats. “Fall is a very good time for root growth,” Neal says. “I advise people to plant by October 1 to allow six weeks before the ground freezes. This is also a good time to get a soil test. It will be processed fairly quickly compared to tests taken in the spring so you can amend your soil as needed while planting.”

Beth Simpson, owner of Rolling Green Nursery in Greenland, agrees. “We are having longer falls now,” she says, “which gives us a month or more of good rooting time to get a new plant established before cold weather sets in.” Her nursery stocks many woody plants perfect for adding fall color to your landscape.

Fall is also a great time to take advantage of the end-of-the-season clearance sales. Garden designer Bindy von Hacht of Bradford has filled her yard, and those of some of her clients, with treasures obtained at end-of-the-year sales. “Often, it pays to wait. If you have done your homework, you can find some incredible buys.” A Pennsylvania native, von Hacht studied at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and attended the Barnes Foundation Arboretum School in Merion, Pennsylvania, so she knows her trees. “Fall is also a good time to assess the bare spots in your landscape that could use the addition of a new tree or shrub,” she says.

Fiery foliage
Every garden should have at least one tree or shrub that gives a spectacular show of color in the fall. Be aware that temperatures, amount of sunshine and levels of soil moisture will affect how bright fall foliage will be.

Fothergilla is a native shrub that bears fragrant, white bottlebrush flowers in spring. Its foliage can turn shades of yellow, gold and orange-red in the fall.

Also, make sure the shrubs and trees you choose are hardy for your area. For example, many types of Japanese maples, stewartia and Kousa dogwood are hardy to zone 5, so they are fine in southern New Hampshire. Other trees and shrubs are hardy in zones 3 and 4, so will do well statewide.

Here are a few of our experts’ recommendations for trees and shrubs with brilliant autumn color:

  • Maples: Japanese maples (Acer palmatum and A. japonicum) are top on Simpson’s list for stunning color in a small tree. “As delicate as they look, they are incredibly tough,” von Hacht says. Simpson also recommends Korean maple (Acer pseudosieboldianum), native swamp maples or red maple (Acer rubrum). “If you have a big yard and are looking for a large, iconic New England fall foliage tree,” Neal says, “you might want to plant a native sugar maple (Acer saccharum).”
  • Black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica): This is another that all our experts agree on. “In the fall, its leaves are as red as Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick!” says von Hacht. Neal says that, since this tree is native to swampy areas, it will do just fine in a wet location. However, like the sugar maple, the black tupelo grows quite large and is not for a small yard.
  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba): “This tree is not native, but it is ancient and imposing,” Neal says. “It has interesting fan-shaped leaves that turn a clear yellow in fall, then almost all drop to the ground in a single day after a hard freeze.”
  • Stewartia pseudocamellia: This non-native is worth growing for its salmon-orange foliage in the fall. Von Hacht recommends it not only for its autumn color, but for its white, camellia-like flowers in summer and interesting mottled bark that offers winter interest as well.
  • Dogwoods: Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) is an Asian native that is more disease resistant than our native dogwood. Grown mainly for the showy white bracts that surround its flowers in late spring, “It is riotously beautiful in bloom,” von Hacht says. Kousa dogwood also has beautiful burgundy foliage in the fall. Growing between fifteen- and thirty-feet tall, the Kousa dogwood is considered a small landscape tree. Red twig and yellow twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea) are natives grown for their colorful stems, but in the fall, their leaves also turn orange to deep red and purple. Simpson sells dwarf cultivars of both colors, red ‘Arctic Fire’ and yellow ‘Arctic Sun’. They grow between three- and four-feet tall and wide.
  • Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum): Simpson says if you are looking to add more edibles to your landscape along with more fall color, look no further than blueberries. Neal says: “These shrubs are well-known for their fruit but also make beautiful landscape plants. You can have it all—flowers in spring, fruit in summer and red/orange leaves in fall.”
  • Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii): This is the dwarf type and F. major is a large type of this shrub, both of which Simpson offers. “Another multi-season plant, underutilized in southern New Hampshire, fothergilla has white bottlebrush flowers; respectable green summer leaves; then bright yellow, orange and red foliage in the fall,” Neal says. “And you get all the colors on the same plant!”
  • Viburnums: These are one of von Hacht’s favorite shrubs. “How could you not like a viburnum?” she asks. “Arrowwood (V. dentatum) turns a brilliant shade of red late in the season, and I love doublefile (V.plicatum tomentosum) for its multi-season interest.” Simpson has many native viburnums to choose from, including nannyberry (V. lentago), smooth witherod (V. nudum) and blackhaw (V. prunifolium). She carries some stunning non-natives as well, such as Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii).
  • Callicarpa: The name means “beautiful fruit” in Greek, and this plant is aptly called beautyberry. In autumn, clusters of glossy, neon-purple berries contrast with the bright yellow foliage on a six-foot-tall shrub. Even if the plant dies back over the winter, it will bloom and set fruit on the current season’s new growth. “It is worth growing just for the wow factor of those berries!” von Hacht says.

Growing tips

Callicarpa is worth growing just for its bright neon purple berries. Plant more than one for pollination and they will bear an abundant crop of berries.

Here are a couple additional tips from Neal:

  • Make sure to mulch properly to protect the new roots and keep the plant from heaving in the winter.
  • If planting broadleaf evergreens (such as rhododendrons or inkberry) or conifers (needled evergreens) on a site exposed to winter sun and wind, protect them from desiccation by wrapping them with burlap and/or applying an anti-desiccant.
  • New trees might benefit in the first winter from shading the lower trunk (either with burlap or a coat of latex paint) on the southwest side to prevent sunscald and cracking. Once the tree gets older and the bark thickens, this is not necessary, but many new trees have thin bark.

For more information on selecting, planting, mulching and maintaining small trees and shrubs, check out the UNH Cooperative Extension’s webpage at, or look for the book The Best Plants for New Hampshire Gardens and Landscapes by the New Hampshire Plant Growers’ Association and UNH Cooperative Extension.

Categories: Gardening & Landscape