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Showy plants, excellent design make a fall garden great

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Photo courtesy of Neil Jorgensen.

(Read caption) The cultivar name of this fullmoon maple, Acer japonicum 'Vitifolium', means grapeleaf, referring to the shape of the foliage, which resembles 'Vitis', or grape.

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What makes a fall garden great? Color! Just check out this woodland garden in southern Maine, where bold Matisse-like hues turn tree-lined paths into autumn stand-outs. Subtle shades of green support wild strokes of red, orange, and gold.

Instead of paint, however, my friends Martha Petersen and Neil Jorgensen use small maples and stewartia for their jewel-like fall colors and textural effects.

Specific plants include Japanese maples (Acer palmatum 'Crimson Queen,' 'Scolopendrifolium,' and 'Filigree'), fullmoon maples (A. japonicum ‘Vitifolium’ and an ‘Aconitifolium' seedling), paperbark maple (A. griseum) and stewartia (S. pseudocamellia).

When Neil and Martha, both landscape designers, moved to Maine more than a decade ago, their goal was to create a naturalistic setting that suited their site and showed off their favorite plants.

What success they achieved! I love this garden because in the woodland, they cultivate their small maples as a sweeping understory, not just as individual specimens the way gardeners often do.

First, they took stock of the existing wooded landscape. Next, they pruned or removed some of the old, broken, or unsightly overstory trees, leaving mostly red oaks and black spruces with straight trunks and attractive canopies on site.

Then they planted small maples – both purchased and grown from seed – in the woodland garden, along with rhododendrons and spring-blooming perennials.

Now, when fall arrives, the impact is huge as hot colors explode in the landscape. The rhododendrons’ cool blue-green foliage makes the hot colors pop and at the same time brings the garden back to earth.

It’s the underlying attention to design that makes this colorful fall garden work.

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For example, by the woodland side of the deck, Neil and Martha grow a small weeping red Japanese maple as a specimen. That shrubby maple follows the garden’s fall color theme and ties the plantings around the house to the woodland landscape.

In the end, it’s not just showy plant choice but also the design supporting the brilliant hues that make this garden great.

Penelope O’Sullivan, who writes about trees and shrubs at Diggin’ It, is the author of “The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook: The Essential Guide to Choosing, Planting, and Maintaining Perfect Landscape Plants.” She has a landscape design business on the New Hampshire seacoast.

Editor’s note: To read more posts by Penelope, see our blog archive. The Monitor’s main gardening page offers articles on many gardening topics. See also our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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