The Best Trees for Fall Color

‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.’

– Chinese Proverb

 

For many reasons, fall is my favorite time of the year.  I love the cooler weather and changing landscapes.  This signals the end of another growing season, but there are still a few highlights to come. The beauty of the fall wildflowers like asters and goldenrods makes them stand out in a sea of grass.  The native grasses are at their peak with attractive seed heads and brilliant fall color.  It is also a time when trees begin to change, developing shades of red, orange, yellow, and tan.  I know winter is coming, but the crescendo of our gardens is fun to watch.

Native Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)

How do trees develop fall color?

Fall color in trees is a result of a complex process of removing the green pigment, chlorophyll, from the leaves, which allows the other pigments to be seen.  For instance, carotene and xanthophyll (carotenoids) are yellow pigments that are produced all year long with chlorophyll.  With the shorter days and cooler fall temperatures, chlorophyll production is slowed and the green color slowly disappears revealing the yellow pigments that have been there all year long.  Green ash and ginkgo are good examples of trees with nice yellow fall color.

Other trees produce red and purple pigments called anthocyanins, which tend to cover the yellow pigments present in leaves during the fall.  As the fall season progresses, the increased sugar content in these leaves works to intensify these reddish-purple leaves.  American ash, shingle oak and shumard oak are nice trees with red fall color.

In trees with a combination of carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments, an orange fall color develops.  Sugar maples, smoke trees, and sweet gum trees are wonderful examples with orange fall colors.

Some of our trees have no vibrant fall color, but rather the leaves turn to tans and browns. This is caused by tannins in the leaves, which accumulate as the chlorophyll is removed from the leaves.

Fall color can be a little different every year.  Plant genetics, and environmental conditions make subtle changes from year to year fun to watch.  Each year, there is a unique beauty in the landscape that should be savored, enjoyed and not taken for granted.

White oak

My Favorite Trees for Fall Color

Shumard Red Oak (Quercus shumardii)

This oak tree will reach a height of 40-60 ft. with a nice rounded-pyramidal habit.  It is a stately tree that produces a wonderful range of colors from deep red and maroon to dark oranges.  Fall color can be quite variable from year to year depending on environmental conditions.  Other oaks worth trying: shingle oak, white oak and black oak.

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

Sugar Maples and many other maples are the quintessential tree for fall color. In Kansas, sugar maples are relatively slow growing but worth the wait as a mature tree can put on quite a fall display.  They reach an ultimate height of 40-50 feet tall and equal spread.  The bright red, orange and yellow leaves appear in October and last for many weeks.  Try the cultivars, ‘John Pair’, ‘Autumn Splendor’, ‘Table Rock’, ‘Flashfire’, ‘Oregon Trail’ or ‘Legacy’ for the most consistent fall color each year.

Table Rock Sugar Maple

Bald Cypress

This is not usually recognized as a tree with exceptional fall color, but when the fine leaves turn reddish-brown in the fall, it is striking.  We have planted Our specimens near the pond where the “knees” can develop. The pyramidal habit reaching 50-60 feet tall make it a majestic tree for certain situations. It is certainly worth a try.

Bald Cypress fall color

Others worth noting:

  • Viburnum rufidulum
  • Viburnum prunifolium
  • Cotinus ‘Grace’
  • Betula tremuloides ‘Prairie Gold’
  • Sassafras
  • Ginkgo ‘Autumn Gold’
  • Carya cordiformis
  • persimmon

We are already seeing signs of fall here at the Arboretum.  Fall color starts in September and ends in November with peak coloration sometime in October.  Cool night temperatures above freezing, calm winds, and sunny days will make the colors more intense.  So, even though it’s not New England, let’s enjoy the beauty of fall.

Sugar Maple

10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows

Katie Kingery-Page

I heard a great presentation this last Saturday entitled “10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows” by Katie Kingery-Page, Kansas State University (KSU) faculty member in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional & Community Planning. Ms. Kingery-Page was the keynote speaker at the Kansas Native Plant Society’s Annual Wildflower Weekend and her message fit perfectly with the weekend’s theme of “Native Plants in City Settings”.

I find Katie’s background of fine art, landscape design, and ecology intriguing. When she introduced herself as someone who sees landscape architecture as the design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place, I knew that her presentation was going to speak to me.

Katie’s insights in this presentation were based on her experiences with “The Meadow” Project in front of the Beach Museum of Art on the KSU campus. From 2013-16, Katie and her team of volunteers converted a half acre of neglected turf into a native plant meadow. Her 10 lessons learned from this process were as follows:

 

1. Build A Coalition for the Life of the Project

It takes all kinds of people to complete a big project, and she showed a diagram of a “volunteer tree” she created.

Flow chart of people critical to the project.

2. Know the Place

Their planting list started with an extensive Flint Hills species template of the plants found at nearby Konza Prairie and was carved down to the resulting planting mix. Hackberry trees removed from the planting site were milled into everything from benches to mushroom-growing media.

Schematic diagram of prairie and forest-based planting mixes. (Image by Katie Kingery-Page, 2013)

3. Let the Team Guide the Values

Their team developed a mission statement and goals including that the site would integrate art and science and be a living laboratory that would minimize the usage of water and chemicals. An outcome of this plan was to forego the conventional use of killing existing vegetation with glyphosate and instead turned to compost smothering and mechanical scraping.

 

4. Develop A Thick Skin…Use Your Tricks

Have patience and don’t expect an instant landscape. Using flashy, early successional flowering plants such as the annual species Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) – the “bacon of plants” – helps distract onlookers that might otherwise see the weedy nature of the early stages of a planting.

Early successional, flowering “bacon” or “eye candy” plants Plains coreopsis (yellow) and beebalm (Monarda fistulosa). (Image by Katie Kingery-Page)

5. Tell the Project Story

Stories of these projects need to be told and can be done so through various media. Photos, drawings, and interactive touch tables at the Beach Museum were all used to tell The Meadow Project story.

Root development and above ground biomass increase over time, which also leads to increased soil porosity.

6. Connect to Volunteers’ Joy

Volunteer efforts were critical to the success of the project and instead of “work days”, they had “convene with monarch days” where learning experiences were an attractive part of the labor-filled get-togethers.

 

7. Put A Price on Labor

Weeding is skilled labor amounting to “surgical plant removal” and it should be rewarded. However, if money can’t be given, then at least try to find ways to acknowledge the people helping.

 

8. Embrace Imperfection

Native landscaping is perfectly imperfect and the inevitable weeds can be seen as beautiful too. Learning strategies that aid perception of such projects include maintaining a mowed edge that is critical to the perceived success of otherwise “messy” native landscapes.

All ages are welcome to weed. (Image by Richard Dean Prudenti)

9. Make Your Project for the Message of Conservation

Such projects are multi-faceted in their environmental benefits, and assessment measures should broadly include plants, soils, stormwater, wildlife, and more.

Restoration vs. Conservation – Katie used to use the word “restoration”, but there is a danger in implying that this process can fix all impacts to a diverse remnant plant community. Perhaps “conservation” is better with a focus on ecosystem functions such as soil structure, stormwater infiltration, etc.

10. Be A Champion…Stay All In

Katie learned early on from school gardening projects that such endeavors need project champions to carry the project through.

“The Meadow” Project. Long view toward the Beach Museum of Art. (Image courtesy of K-State Communications and Marketing)

____________________

The 10 lessons in this presentation were familiar to me in a variety of ways. From 2003 to 2008 at Dyck Arboretum, our staff and an extensive team of volunteers and college student interns collected seed from local prairie remnants and planted the 13-acre Prairie Window Project. Distinct examples come to mind of our project that relate to each of these lessons and I’ve blogged about various interpretations of that project over the years. It would be fun to come up with our own 10 lessons as well. I can tell you that, similar to The Meadow Project, it included the “design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place.”

How to Beautify Your Home Habitat Garden This Fall

I have said over the years that fall is a great time to plant just about anything.  I will not go into why fall is an ideal time to plant because you can read it here.  Whether you are creating a “new front yard” without turf grass or just supplementing your existing landscape, you will be rewarded in spring with healthier, heartier and well rooted plants that jump out of the ground.  The new fledgling plants you get from our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival will create a habitat garden that will be beneficial and attractive to wildlife as early as next spring.

The “New Front Lawn”

People are increasingly aware that the traditional front lawn is only marginally beneficial to wildlife compared to a habitat planting with wildflowers, grasses and shrubs.  This is an important paradigm shift as we think critically about how our landscapes can improve habitat loss.  By replacing small sections of turf with deep rooted plants, you reduce the need for water, create islands that wildlife, including pollinators, can use while increasing the overall aesthetics of your home.  This alternative to the traditional lawn starts with a thoughtful design followed by the removal of the turf you want to transition to native plants.  The area needs to be free of vegetation and problematic weeds.  Think about how you will be viewing your new landscape (from the kitchen window or from the street or both).  This process will help you lay out and stage your plants.

 

 

This gentleman is defining the new garden with a garden hose. Over the next year, he will dig up the grass and plant potatoes in the area while continuing to dig up any sprouting bermuda grass. It is a slow process, but he is able to develop a new garden without spraying. He gets nice potatoes too. A year later the area is ready for native plants.

Just a few additions

Fall is a great time to fill in some holes that have developed this summer.  Here at the Arboretum, the landscape is constantly changing.  As the landscape evolves and matures, new plants are added that complement the existing landscape.  I like to ask the question, “What is missing?” Do I need some structure plants, or wildflowers that bloom at a specific time? Do I need plants that can withstand a certain environmental condition unique to the site?  Asking these questions now provides you an exciting opportunity to add just the right plant(s) to round out your yard and help develop habitat.

Blank slate

I have done several designs this year and most are starting with new gardens. By starting from scratch, you have so many options available to you.  Homeowners want to make the switch and establish an alternative landscape.  Plan your garden, choose plants that fit your site, and get them established properly.  If you are not ready to plant the entire area this fall, I recommend getting the bones of the garden established.  Plant a cluster of grasses along the foundation of your home, a few shrubs in the center of the design, or a grouping of wildflowers along the perimeter. This will make it easier to fill in the holes and visualize the mature landscape next spring.

Photo by Brad Guhr

New garden ready for planting

Selecting plants with wildlife value and natural beauty will transform your landscape from dull and drab to dynamic and beneficial.  To see dragonflies, monarchs, other pollinators and birds being supported by your landscape is an inspiring experience.  Offering an attractive mix of drought tolerant plants will create the habitat these creatures seek to inhabit and use it.  Diversity of plants attracts a diversity of wildlife. Your garden can be part of the solution as we work to find balance in the world around us.

Habitat creation – the ultimate goal of any home landscape!