Towards the end of the year, the garden needs plants that work a little harder and stretch out their season of interest into the early winter months. It can come from flame-coloured leaves, shapely fruits, berries and seed heads, or long-lasting flowers, the choice is up to you. To help you decide, here our nine favourite late-season plants suitable for both small, city gardens and country garden borders. Chosen by Chris Marchant, owner of Orchard Dene Nurseries in Oxfordshire.
Crataegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’
I sense a whiff of eastern exoticism about this small tree, spectacular in its autumn foliage, which turns gradually to orange, presenting bright crimson before falling. At once, the tree is left naked, but for the brilliant red fruits which adorn the boughs, like a blushing Salome resplendent in nought but jewels. Earliest cultivation can be traced back to the 18th century when it occurred as a hybrid of two North American species. A beautiful small tree, but with significant thorns, so position it with care. This is an RHS Award of Garden Merit plant.
Height/Spread 6m x 4-5m. Origin North American parentage. Soil Most fertile garden loam. Season of interest Flowers from May to June, with fruits from September to November.
Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’
This large shrub or small tree has many merits, but growing in a balanced symmetrical form would seem to be one of them. Branches often turn upon themselves at crazy angles, and the creaking structure now demands strategic propped support to mitigate collapse. But the gold and aubergine tints on its leaves and the sight of laden branches backlit against a pale blue sky are exquisite. This RHS Award of Garden Merit plant should be a feature of more gardens.
Height/spread up to 6m tall with an 8m spread. Origin Native to Eastern North America. Soil Most well-drained soils with good humus content. Season of interest Tiny crimson flowers in May, with show-stopping leaf colour from September onwards.
Giant pots of this are wheeled on to the terrace at home each summer, threaded informally between specimen Agapanthus praecox to give an exuberant floral display which lasts into October. It may not be winter hardy, but the rate and quality of growth in a single season merits better recognition for summer displays. Stems are covered in a rash of scarlet hairs that define the elegant profile, and each carry a succession of coral-red flowers in ascending whorls. Even when flower petals drop, the dark red calyces will command admiring glances. Cutting taken at the end of summer can be over-wintered for next year.
Height/spread 150 x 50cm. Origins Native to South America/Brazil. Soil Free-draining loam, or perfect for pots. Season July to September.
Ageratina altissima ‘Braunlaub’
Striking, high-colour plants sometimes need a foil and I love the way this plant can be offered up to such a wide range of classics to achieve the necessary bridge between strong or strident colours. Helenium rudbeckia, aster and crocosmia are eased into a harmonious group when partnered with Ageratina. Groups of this plant growing on the nursery will regularly attract clouds of butterflies – a good reason to include them in any garden. Ageratina was previously grouped with Eupatorium in its classification, and the characteristics are very similar.
Height/spread 100cm x 60cm. Origins North America. Soil Free-draining garden loam. Season Late August to October.
Cladastris comes from the Greek, translating as ‘brittle shoot’. One of the Leguminosae family, its fragrant flowers appear in late spring in extravagant pendulous clusters, followed by slim, elongated pods. Sadly, the flowers are rare in Britain, requiring prolonged early warmth to ripen the buds, but it has other merits, and even our cooler climate will gradually progress the fresh green leaves to golden pinnate foliage in autumn. At this point, the tree shines a warming cast over a chilly autumnal garden. It can be successfully pollarded to keep the profile in check if required.
Height/spread Up to 20m x 7m. Origins Eastern USA. Soil Prefers a moisture-retentive soil. Season Flowers May to June with attractive foliage September to October.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Krater’
This shorter Miscanthus is particularly useful in the front or middle rank of a deep border, where i find it provides a strong visual anchor during the colder months without obscuring other shapely forms. The narrow green blades have a pronounced white mid-rib; gently arching flower stems rise taller to support a host of chestnut-brown flower panicles during September and October. By November the foliage has mellowed to a warm biscuit brown, and plumes have attained a silvery sheen. This scene is set until you choose to cut it back, which we do in February, to await the new season’s growth.
Height/Spread 150cm x 60cm. Origins Species originates in Eastern Asia. Soil Most fertile garden loams. Season September to November.
A wiry, unassuming plant that scarcely warrants attention for eight months of the year. All that changes in September and October when the ever-extending stems finally yield up a vivid yellow bloom and the shortening days coax the foliage into flamboyant autumn attire of gold and burgundy. Each flower is relatively small, so the intensity of colour is perfectly balanced by generous proportions of foliage. Its slender upright form is ideal for threading among Miscanthus grasses which offer the token support needed to prevent collapse.
Height/Spread 200cm x 50cm. Origins From Eastern USA. Soil Free-draining garden loam, best protected from full sun in woodland edge conditions. Season Late August to October.
Malus x zumi ‘Golden Hornet’
A neat pyramidal habit, and tolerance of light pollution, makes this tree ideal for smaller urban gardens where it serves well as a pollinator for other Malus cultivars. Flowers are pink in bud, opening to fragrant white blossom. Small groups of the trees, arranged in groves, make an enchanting sight, both in spring and autumn. Long, slender branches are tested by the abundance of their golden harvest, when amber fruits the size of marbles are an invitation to fieldfares.
Hight/Spread 10m x 8m. Origins A hybrid between M. baccata and M. sieboldii. Soil Well-drained neutral to alkaline loam. Season of interest Flowers in May, with fruits from August to November.
Aster cordifolius ‘Elegans’
We first came upon A. ‘Elegans’ in the nursery gardens of Paul Picton in Malvern. In its early stages, the slender stems and fine branching structure suggest fragility. But this idea is soon confounded as buds begin to open and the full extent of voluminous display is revealed. A myriad of tiny powder blue daisies are studded along each branch; the result is a light, airy feature for the autumn border. Disease resistant and requiring no special attention, this offers a potential flower arrangement in each stem. Set among the darker burgundy foliage of sedums and eupatorium, the effect is simple and long lasting.
Height/Spread 150cm x 60cm. Origins Species originates in North America. Soil Free-draining loam, neutral to alkaline. Season of interest September to early November.
Words Chris Marchant is co-owner of Orchard Dene Nurseries in Henley-On-Thames, Oxfordshire, a wholesale grower specialising in herbaceous plants.
Photos Jason Ingram