Planting shrubs and trees in autumn

Autumn is a season we should plan for and plant for, and there is no time like the present says Andy McIndoe.

tease out roots
It's a good time to plant shrubs. Image: Martin Mulchinock
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Autumn could be my favourite season in the garden. Leaves and late summer flowers are my colour palette; sunset shades; warm, rich and vibrant. We are so lucky in temperate regions that we have this changing picture as the green canopy of summer becomes the fiery mantle of fall. The light is kinder too. Gone are the harsh rays of midsummer; the lower light of autumn displays all colours, especially the sapphire blues and hot pinks of asters to the greatest advantage.

The autumn garden is full of delights and surprises. Dewey grass, colourful toadstools, a colourful carpet of fallen leaves. There’s nothing like the sweet smell of autumn so get out there and make the most of it.

Planting season

Any experienced gardener will tell you that autumn is nature’s time for planting. That’s not just a ploy to get you out there. The soil is warm and moist; newly planted trees and shrubs have got all winter to get their roots out into the ground, to establish before they have to cope with supporting leaves and flowers next summer. Chances are, if you plant now you will have less aftercare to administer next season.

Soil matters

add fertiliser to planting hole
Add slow release general fertiliser to the soil. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Preparing the soil is easier too. Digging is a pleasure in autumn and after some rainfall it’s not as arduous. Even those gardening on heavy clay will agree that it’s better to cultivate now, rather than when that clay soil is heavy and soggy in early spring.

Ground preparation is the key to successful planting. Fork in plenty of good garden compost or a shrub and tree planting compost. Alternatively use the compost from your pots and containers when you tip out that summer bedding.

Planting tips

  • firm around shrubs
    After planting, step around the shrub to firm it into the soil. Image: Martin Mulchinock

    Whatever you are planting, always water it thoroughly before you take it out of its pot. Dig a hole that’s deep enough and wide enough to accommodate the rootball with plenty of space all around it.

  • Make sure you break up the soil in the bottom of the planting hole with a fork.
  • Add a slow release general fertiliser to the soil as you backfill around the rootball.
  • Firm the soil around the roots and water your new plant thoroughly. If you get your levels right leaving a shallow saucer shaped depression around the plant, it really helps to direct rainfall into the roots; it is easier when you water too.

My five favourites for sensational autumn colour

1. Japanese maple

The varieties of Acer palmatum are some of the finest shrubs or small trees for autumn colour. I would always choose a purple-leaved variety like ‘Bloodgood’ or ‘Fireglow’. These give you colourful foliage through spring and summer and a splendid show in autumn. They are tougher than people think. They don’t need acid soil and they do need full sun. They don’t like to be too dry at the roots. They are a great choice for pots, so ideal for small gardens.

Acer palmatum
Acer palmatum ‘Fireglow’. Image: Andy McIndoe

2. Berberis thunbergii

Lovely arching stems of wine red leaves suffused with salmon pink at the tips of the shoots. A great mixer with other shrubs and perennials in summer, then ablaze in autumn as the leaves turn to scarlet. Grows on any soil in an open sunny position.

Berberis thunbergii
Berberis thunbergii

3. Smoke bush (Cotinus)

Cotinus are big growers, so they are shrubs for the back of the border, but you can restrict their size by pruning. I love the ever popular Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ with its rich wine coloured, rounded leaves and fluffy flower heads in late summer. The crimson autumn colour is an added bonus; just when you thought it couldn’t get any better.

Cotinus coggygria
Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’. Image: Andy McIndoe

4. Dogwood

You may think of red-barked dogwoods as the shrubs you grow for their winter stems, or for their colourful variegated leaves. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’ has both, and it doesn’t get too big either. However its best feature for me is the amazing crimson-pink autumn colour that spreads through those pretty green and white variegated leaves. Truly a shrub for all seasons.

Cornus alba Sibirica Variegata
Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’. Image: Andy McIndoe

5. Hardy plumbago

Ceratostigma willmottianum is a small twiggy shrub with, dark green pointed leaves. Planted in a sunny spot the leaves tint with flame and gold as autumn progresses, a lovely combination with the sapphire blue flowers, which are freely produced until the first hard frosts. Late butterflies love it as a source of nectar.

Ceratostigma willmottianum
Ceratostigma willmottianum. Image: Andy McIndoe
Andy McIndoe

About Andy McIndoe

Andy has over 35 years experience in retail and production horticulture. A regular contributor to a number of magazines, newspapers and BBC Radio he lectures to gardening groups and societies at home and abroad and leads numerous gardening tours. As Managing Director of Hillier Nurseries he was responsible for the Company’s exhibit at RHS Chelsea Flower Show for 25 years, maintaining an unbroken record of Gold Medals. Andy’s special interests include hardy shrubs, trees, herbaceous perennials, flower bulbs and garden design and he has authored books on all of these subjects. His latest book, The Creative Shrub Garden is published by Timber Press in the UK and US. Andy blogs three times a week and is a tutor of several courses at the online MyGardenSchool.
View all posts by Andy McIndoe.