Autumn foliage and winter form for city gardens

by Rhiannon James

credit: nardino

The weather might be getting dreary but that doesn’t mean the garden has to. Whether you want to light it up with fiery foliage, set it dancing with swaying grasses or keep it fresh with evergreens, there are plenty of plants to keep things interesting through the autumn and winter months. Gardeners’ Question Time panellist, managing director of Clifton Nurseries and garden designer Matthew Wilson picks his favourites.

We all focus on spring and summer but actually, to me, autumn and winter are just as exciting. You see the garden in a different light, both literally and metaphorically, and it becomes a very interesting place. There are also plenty of plants that have a real impact at this time of year and on into winter.

Small trees and shrubs for autumn and winter colour

Amelanchier canadensis (juneberry or snowy mespilus)

credit: dogtooth77

This is a brilliant tree for a small city garden – I have one myself. It starts into flower in March or April and becomes completely covered in beautiful starry white blooms, while the leaves, when they first emerge, are a lovely pinky bronze and then gradually turn green. In June you have berries and then at this time of year, the leaves are all bonfire colours.

This long season of interest is exactly what you’re looking for in a small tree. It’ll grow to about four metres but you can also prune it so it’s ideal for most gardens.



Cotinus coggygria (smoke bush)

credit: Mike Legend

For most of the year, Cotinus are a great foil for other plants – this makes them sound rather dull but I think good gardens should be like a stage play, you need to have your leading lady and your leading man, but you also need to have the third spear carrier and the chorus. Then, in the autumn, many will suddenly look dazzling.

Cotinus ‘Flame’, for example, has green foliage for the majority of the year but it’s exuberantly coloured in the autumn. And then, once the leaves fall, it also has great structural interest thanks to its shape.

You can let Cotinus grow and become fully-fledged members of society so they flower and everything else, but I prefer to grow smoke bushes specifically as foliage plants. Every February, I prune each plant back to a framework and this means three things happen: you get multiple stems forming but you also get much, much larger leaves and much greater depth of colour.

Cornus alba (dogwood)


These plants are grown for two main reasons: one is autumn colour but the other, and primary, one is stem colour.

Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ has these lovely intense blood-red stems, which when they’re lit by the low winter sun, are really spectacular, especially if they’re planted close to water and you get the reflections as well.

Gardening books will tell you to cut this plant down close to the ground in February or March to get the best display, but you don’t need to do this, you can just reduce the plant by a third each year, keeping the vigorous stems and taking out the older, woodier ones. This means the plant retains some capacity to absorb sunlight and feed itself after it has been pruned so it stays stronger and it also means you don’t have a whacking great hole in your garden while you’re waiting for the plant to regenerate.



Grasses have fantastic qualities for autumn and winter – they have interesting forms, textures and colours and a fascinating way of diffusing light down the length of their stems.

Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’

credit: ungleof

One of the common names for Molinia caerulea is purple moor-grass – this cultivar is related to the grass you see growing on the Yorkshire moors.

Molinia has structural presence at this time of year, but the great thing about it is, it doesn’t have any bulk, so you can afford to put it right at the front of the border. It adds movement, wafting around even in light breezes and as its colour fades, it develops this fantastic straw-orange tone so it looks amazing when it’s lit up by the sun. It will stay looking good until we have a serious rain, snow or wind storm and when it starts to collapse, it can just be cut down. I put the stems in a vase so I can enjoy them indoors for a couple more months. If we don’t have a rough winter, it’ll keep going until it has to be cut down anyway in late February.



credit: Bruce M Walker

There is a huge variety of Miscanthus available, mainly thanks to the work of two men: Karl Foerster and Ernst Pagels. You can get tall forms, dwarf forms, great flower colours in late summer and autumn, from deep red to silver, and you can get good autumn foliage colour from some of them as well. Just as importantly, they often add movement, texture and form to the garden right the way through the winter.






credit: D. H. Parks

Pennisetum have wonderfully textural flowers and if you want to get kids interested in the garden, they love the fact that they’re almost like pets on a stick. Appearing in summer or autumn, they can last well into the winter, creating interest over a long period.

Grasses hate to be split and planted into cooling autumn soil, they need to be divided in spring when the soil is warming up.







credit: Clifton Nurseries

Whilst Euphorbias such as E. x martinii and E. mellifera flower early in the season, they are fantastic plants in winter because they can have such intensity of colour in their leaves and stems and their dense rosettes of foliage create beautiful forms. Euphorbias also hybridise freely so you get all sorts of crosses in the garden – the flowers can turn out to be a dismal sappy green but it’s exciting watching it happen.





credit: Clifton Nurseries

Twenty five years ago, topiary was pretty much dead as a garden concept. It has gradually seen a resurgence to the point where, if I see one more window box planted with box, I will probably set fire to it. I have a lot of box in my garden but I don’t use it in the conventional way. Instead, I have box balls of varying sizes arranged in clouds to create a great structural winter feature in the garden. In between, I’ve got lavender ‘Hidcote’ and I trim these plants so they take on the same cloudy shape as the box – it looks really rather spectacular.



Bay and olives

credit: Andrew Middleton

No one would have planted an olive tree in a London garden fifty years ago and now they’re everywhere. They certainly have their part to play in the garden though – I have three that form a sort of aerial hedge. I planted them quite close together so I get clear stems but the heads are growing together. Bays do a similar job, as part of the upper rank of topiary, as it were, but they can tolerate a little more shade – olives really need to be in full sun.




You can learn more about creating a colourful autumn garden at Clifton Nurseries’ workshops this week. Sarah Glenny will show how to make a splash with containers and attendees can then try their hand at planting their own pots. The workshops take place on Thursday 18th and Friday 19th October from 11am until 12 noon, price £5 (and £45 if planting up a container on the day).

Sarah will also be running a fun Halloween workshop for children (recommended age range 3- 10 years) on October 31st at 11am-12 noon and 4pm -5pm covering creepy crawlies and carnivorous plants. Entry is £5 but Halloween costume means free entry! Early booking is recommended.



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