Best plants for autumn colour in small New Zealand gardens

neil ross Neil Ross neil ross neil ross neil ross neil ross Neil Ross neil ross

Sometimes called ‘The Rocket’, Ligularia przewalskii truly lives up to the hype with fiery comet tails of gold streaking skyward in summer – each flower set off against singed black stems. Most ligularias like soil on the moist side and are caviar for slugs and snails but they are worth the fuss for few perennials deliver such grandeur, precise architecture and a smouldering descent towards death. (Joy Plants)

Drought-tolerant and beloved by bees, sedums are stalwarts of the autumn garden. Sedum ‘Desert Red’ is a stunning new variety from Living Fashion and available in the South Island. It’s a compact spreading form and the dense heads of flower turn into black seedheads which keep the interest through winter. ‘Mr Bloodgood’ is another variety with strong autumn colour.

Nicandra physaloides is a weedy annual from South America where it is called Apple of Peru – an unhelpful name considering all parts of the plant are poisonous. Where it pops up on my vegetable garden I tend to allow a few to spread wide their branches just to enjoy the blue trumpet flowers and intriguing lantern seed cases. Does it really shoo the flies? Not in my experience but the name only adds to the allure.

Pseudowintera colorata ‘Red Leopard’ was discovered growing locally by Denis Hughes of Blue Mountain Nursery in Otago. In the wild, New Zealand plants can be drab affairs so it’s ironic how many – such as flax – have given rise to the eye-watering variegations. This jazzy horopito is no exception. It can be lightly clipped but looks best grown freeform. Feed it well or the red decreases and the leaves take on a more yellow tint.

Paeonies don’t flower long and take a while to settle in, but once they like you, you have a friend for life. The foliage looks good all summer and many varieties produce half-decent autumnal tints as well as attractive berries. They do however need good staking and hate to be planted too deeply – but give them good soil and a bit of sunshine and they will dazzle.

The pokeweed (Phytolacca americana ) is a sinister giant. In its native America this head-high perennial is hated by farmers because of the toxicity of all its parts – leaves, roots and those polished cobs of berries. In some forms the flowers hang down but garden forms tend to have these upstanding clubs. Pokeweed likes a rich, well-drained soil where water is plentiful. All parts die down in winter.

Fuji cherry or Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ is not like most flowering cherries. It’s more of a shrub than a tree, and the branches look gnarled and twisted even from an early age, which makes for a highly picturesque winter outline. I enjoy its soft-pink early flowers but even more its fiery red tints in early autumn. The one drawback is its rarity – you may have to hunt hard for this beauty in New Zealand.

Japanese bloodgrass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’) is a stunning plant well before autumn arrives, for red is its natural hue. Unusually for an ornamental grass it never seeds or flowers but forms a slowly spreading carpet that needs a moist, rich soil to do its best. In cold areas it pays to bring it into a cold greenhouse to overwinter. I like to use it in containers mixing with red flowered nemesias – trimming it flat to tidy it up in spring.

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Heads up for autumn – that's often the direction we look this time of year. But in a small garden there often isn't room for a sizeable tree.

Instead, to get the full flavour of the season in a modest plot you might want to think laterally and cast your eyes downward to find plants that deliver those lovely sunset shades on a smaller scale. 

Little trees make a good backdrop, and in recent years a lovely, twiggy flowering cherry has caught my eye with its dazzling  inferno of autumn leaves and after that its rustic, gnarled and twisted branches. The Fuji cherry (Prunus incisa 'Kojo-No-Mai')  is a perfect rustic shrub for a pot and the soft spring blossom comes early.  

How about planting the vege plot for autumnal tints? 

Drought-tolerant and beloved by bees, sedums are stalwarts of the autumn garden.
Neil Ross

Drought-tolerant and beloved by bees, sedums are stalwarts of the autumn garden.

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As well as brassicas, such as red cabbage, and sleek rows of smoky-grey leeks, it's essential to have a few blueberries growing in pots. Planted in the acid soil they love and generously watered, they are as valuable for their flaming hot autumn leaves as their summer berries. The stalks of rainbow chard seem to swell up at this time of year and a bit of leaf trimming will reward you with those plump, pleated trunks in sunset shades.

I like to add a few annuals that look good now between more permanent crops and two favourites are red orach (Atriplex hortensis 'Rubra') with pinky seedheads and edible purple leaves on tall stems, and shoo-fly plants (Nicandra physaloides), which clothe their wide-spreading branches in autumn with Chinese lanterns.

In the flower garden there are plenty of perennials that provide autumn colour. The bright yellows of fading hostas are well-known but a plant I especially enjoyed last year was the stately Ligularia 'The Rocket' – a sport of similar Ligularia przewalskii. Often quoted as a bog plant, this large perennial with stately gold spikes in summer will grow happily in a range of drier soils. There are decent winter seedheads to look forward to but for now, wide leaves withdraw their chlorophyll in a leisurely way, creating etched halos over  their broad shoulders. 

On paper, paeonies should be a write-off by Christmas but look again and many (though not the common double red ones) return for a hearty encore with leaves turning subtle shades of rose and amber with sometimes a tantalising glimpse of lacquered black seeds within petrified capsules. 

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) too commands attention with bold leaves and at the end of summer its totems of fruit – held like Darth Vader corn cobs turning from green through pink to glossy black as a grand finale.

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 While all this shutting up of shop and heading toward dormancy can be very pretty, it's good to note how some perfectly alive plants appear particularly at home alongside all the decay. Rusty variegations of coprosmas and phormiums and the beautiful spotting on our native pepper bush (Pseudowintera colorata 'Red Leopard') only add to the bonfire brightness in the garden.  

There are the warm cinnamon trunks of Luma apiculata and the purple-leafed loropetalums too that look especially comfortable beside autumn tints even though their evergreen foliage may be freshly flushing in bright pink.  It's this two-tone effect of new against old that gives the bush such a sense of life and reminds us that just as some are heading off to bed there is always a new cast of characters waiting in the wings and eager to keep the show going.  

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 - NZ Gardener

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