A few fall standouts for your garden

Albert Camus, the French philosopher who developed Absurdism, once said: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

While Albert didn’t attach any meaning to this annual event (since according to Albert everything is meaningless) at least he recognized that fall color is a pleasant experience that reminds us of the flowers of spring.

I certainly can’t begin to explain “why” fall color happens but I can explain “how” it happens.

Here are the nuts and bolts of fall color.

Plant leaves contain the following pigments:

Chlorophyll: This gives our leaves their green color.

Xanthophyll: Think of yellow leaves.

Carotenoids: These produce the lovely oranges and even browns.

Anthocyanins: This is where the dark reds and purples come from.

In most leaves chlorophyll is the dominate pigment although the others can be present but “invisible” due to the predominance of chlorophyll.

For various reasons, as we move into the fall and the days become shorter plants slow down and eventually stop producing chlorophyll. As the chlorophyll disappears the other pigments start to magically appear and we start to see the brilliant colors of fall. While the carotenoids are almost always hiding in the leaves, for some reason the anthocyanins are only produced in the fall (unless the plant normally has purple leaves during the season).

The intensity of fall color is controlled by several factors including weather, nutrition, soil moisture, stress and genetics. Warm, sunny days and cool nights in the fall typically produce the best fall color.

Plants that are under stress due to drought will usually color up first and drop their leaves before happy plants, but their colors may not be as dramatic. Plants that are over-fertilized and not allowed to slow down in the fall will often have poor fall color if at all (and can potentially be damaged by early frosts).

When plants are well cared for during the growing season they will usually provide us with the best fall colors.

Genetics of course trump all of these environmental factors to the extent that a quaking aspen will always have golden yellow fall color and a Raywood ash will always be dark purple. There is a physiological process that takes place in the fall that involves sugars and carbohydrates and abscission layers that affects how bright the colors will be and when the leaves will fall off but suffice it to say that the end result is that we get to enjoy some lovely fall displays.

How long those colorful leaves hang on is again a function of weather and genetics.

Oakleaf hydrangeas, for example, are already dark purple and will continue to hold their leaves past the first of the year and sometimes all the way into February (unless we get an Arctic blast). Pin oak leaves will turn brown in the fall and not fall off until the new leaves push them out of the way in spring. Ginko leaves are just now starting to turn a bright yellow and within a week or two will all fall off at one time in a matter of hours. Obviously, if we get an early storm all of these leaves can fall off prematurely.

So there are lots of variables that determine how bright our fall colors will be and how long those colors will stick around. Some of it is genetic and some of it is environmental. Either way, what is most important is to just enjoy it and make sure that our own gardens have a good representation of fall color plants.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and you can send your gardening questions to him at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

“The Joy of Houseplants” class is 11 a.m. Oct. 23 at Sunnyside Nursery. For more information, go to www.sunnysidenursery.net.

Talk to us

More in Life

The hardy fuchsia “Voltaire” is one the few fuchsias that can take full sun all day. (Nicole Phillips)
Eight perennials to add to the garden for summer-long enjoyment

July is a great time to fill in those blank spots with long-blooming perennials. (Yes, it is OK to plant in the summer.)

PUD program now helps 10% more customers pay their bills

Changes to the PUD’s Income Qualified Assistance Program ensure more people will get the help they need.

Hosta ‘Krossa Regal’ has blue foliage from late spring through early fall. In summer, tall flower spikes bear lavender blooms. (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: Hosta ‘Krossa Regal’ aka ‘Ginba Giboshi’

This hosta has blue foliage from late spring through early fall. In summer, tall flower spikes bear lavender blooms.

Kate Jaeger played Gretl and Kevin Vortmann was Hansel in Village Theatre’s “Hansel Gretl Heidi Günter,” which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tracy Martin / Village Theatre)
COVID-19 curtain drops on a Village Theatre original musical

The lead actor in the canceled show says his disappointment pales next to that of the 10 young actors who were cast in the production.

Museum invites you to add your colors to vintage Northwest art

The Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds creates a project where people can color woodblock prints. The results will be displayed in the museum’s windows.

Why more men aren’t wearing masks — and how to change that

The four-pronged M.A.S.K. Approach just might convince mask-averse males to do the right thing.

A deservedly affectionate portrait of a civil rights icon

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” traces the life and work of a truly towering figure in American history.

How to confront the disease epedimic in the COVID-19 pandemic

Good health empowers us to cope better and feel better, in mind and body, during turbulent times.

This iron figure representing Horatio Lord Nelson is part of an iron umbrella holder made for the front hall of a Victorian house. Few collectors today would recognize the man as a British naval hero who lived from 1758 to 1805. (Cowles Syndicate Inc.)
Figure of British naval hero adorns iron umbrella holder

Few collectors today would recognize Horatio Lord Nelson, who lived from 1758 to 1805.

Most Read