Sarina Dellinger: Creating fall color in the home garden

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2022

By Sarina Dellinger
For the Salisbury Post

We receive lots of questions this time of year that sounds like this: “When is the fall color peaking at Hurley Park?” While that often changes year to year, early November is a good bet on when the fall color will be its best. Oftentimes an urban backyard is too small to add many of the larger, showstopper trees like oaks, hickories and ashes. But there are many smaller trees, shrubs and perennials that will do the trick. Let’s chat about how you can create warm yellows, oranges, and reds in your own yard, especially since fall is a great time to add new plants to the landscape.

One shrub that provides year-round interest, particularly in the fall and winter is the red twig dogwood (cornus sericea). As the name suggests, it has red twigs, along with orange/red leaves that fade to purple before falling off. It’s also a great host plant for butterflies and provides food for bees and birds. It does well in many locations but loves moist soil so if you have an issue with that in your yard this would be a good choice to plant. Another shrub that provides similar benefits and likes similar conditions is the Virginia sweetspire (itea virginica). The raceme flowers in the summer are fragrant and the leaves change from red to purple in the fall and tend to hang on well into the winter. Check this plant out in Priscilla’s Fragrance Garden next time you visit Hurley Park. The last of my top three shrubs for fall color is the oakleaf hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia). Every year, I eagerly await the turning of the specimen at the entrance to the James B. Gascoigne Fern Glade. Its large oak-shaped leaves turn the most beautiful shades of deep burgundy to purple while graced with the presence of the dried flower panicles. These leaves will hang on into the winter. Once they fall the exfoliating cinnamon bark below the leaves can be enjoyed in the winter garden. There are many cultivars available of the oakleaf hydrangea so there is sure to be one to fit any garden space.

For the perennial lover, consider the Arkansas amsonia (amsonia hubrichtii) which turns a beautiful golden yellow in the fall. This easy-growing, deer-resistant plant also produces spring flowers which the butterflies enjoy. View it at Hurley Park in the Fuller Perennial Garden or in the Ellen Ramsay Wilson Garden. There are also many varieties of native goldenrod (solidago spp.) on the market. My favorite is the “fireworks” variety. It’s also located in the Fuller Perennial Garden and welcomes fall with hundreds of small yellow flowers that provide food for foraging bees before winter. It’s not as aggressive of a spreader as others and will blend well with other perennials. An up-and-coming native plant, little bluestem (schizachyrium scoparium), puts on a great fall show as well. The leaves turn yellow-orange while the seed heads are bronzed purple. This plant is a larval host for butterflies and moths, and also provides year-round habitat for wildlife. A human benefit from this plant is that it prefers full sun, tolerates clay and doesn’t mind droughts, once established. There are many cultivars on the market and it is usually an easy native clumping grass to find locally.

There are many more plants that will give you small-scale fall color, but these are a few of my favorites. Consider attending one of our monthly garden tours for more information. We are hosting tours every second Tuesday of the month at 10 a.m. The October garden tour will be on Tuesday, Oct. 11. Lastly, the next time you visit Hurley Park check out the gardens for inspiration on what to add to your own landscape.

If you have questions about Hurley Park, or want to know how to book events, please give us a call at 704-638-5298. Stay up to date with what’s happening at Hurley Park by following us on Facebook or Instagram @HurleyParkNC. To view a map or donate to Hurley Park, visit our website at Happy gardening!

Sarina Dellinger is public garden manager for Salisbury Parks and Recreation.

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