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Your favorite and forgotten fall color

by Timber Press on September 26, 2018

in Design, Gardening

It’s a toss-up: does Hydrangea paniculata ‘Quick Fire’ look best in summer with its pink-tinged sterile flowers or when brown in autumn?

In summer, brown is the disappointment. In autumn, brown is the reward. Suddenly, your garden is seen in sepia, translated into various shades of auburn highlighted by a cinnamon or cocoa accent dappling here and there.

While thinking of seed, brown is most beautiful when it gangs up together. It’s a matter of volume. One brown branch in a vast sea of green needs an apology. When the entire canvas fades brown and even the last aster turns tawny, brown gets the respect it deserves.  Our eye scans for an occasional burgundy flash, while the rest of the scene is toast. Pessimists would call it drab, but they’re not gardeners. We search for the silver lining. And sure enough, there’s a subtle majesty when ochres are highlighted by glittering frost as Jack completes his etchings every morning. Truly adept gardeners work their browns, stacking the taupe against the chestnut and balancing the fawn beside the ginger. Skillful colorists silhouette the sedums in front of the amsonia to maximize the late show. They bask in their browns.

Around here, brown isn’t the consolation prize. There’s nothing melancholy about buff in autumn. Volume gives texture to the weave. By autumn, you’ve built up so much heft that the brown becomes a woolly blanket before your eyes. It’s not just a lone bit of brown, it’s a conversation. That dialogue is the goal for gardeners who strive to extend their seasons beyond the obvious frost-free dates.

“It’s not just a lone bit of brown, it’s a conversation.”

Further toward this lofty aspiration, there’s a movement afloat advocating density planting, where everything is nestled so closely cheek by jowl that the soil isn’t a visible factor. Plant fanatics who keep jamming new acquisitions into a finite space have been practicing this method for decades. Now we have a label for it. Density planting really shines in shades of brown with maybe some striking evergreens dappled around for definition and a few blue-gray herbs (I’m looking at Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’ right now) as a frame of reference. In mid-December, it’s ravishing.

The meadow is density planting at its finest. Most gardeners call out late summer as a meadow’s shining hour, but I disagree. When my goldenrod and Joe Pye weed turn brown, that’s their runway moment, especially when the whole nubby weave is garnished with the sparkling sugarcoated frosting that melts your heart. Something about the unison of color has a striking richness that draws in your eye and begs for closer examination. It’s a symphony. And when you think about it, everything in that meadow is now focused on the heavy-duty responsibility of producing seeds for the next generation. It’s like the whole meadow is united in the lofty mission of securing a future. It has earned its depth.

I keep the volume high as long as possible. It’s a tricky balance. Every day, I look out at my garden from the windows, from the driveway, from the road, from wherever I happen to be working on the property, from all angles, and assess it. Does it look like harmony or a maintenance lapse? Does it look happy or neglected? Then the paring down ensues. It’s never a clean sweep. Instead, I make swipes at the scene to take out one element or another that’s looking ill-kempt. Maybe the sweet William needs to be cut back, but the eryngium still looks great. Maybe the echinops is breaking apart, but the echinacea is standing strong. I leave as much as possible for birds or those who need to forage. But whenever I cut something down, my labors are followed by a cleanup crew of juncos, titmice, and chickadees with perhaps a stray blue jay or cardinal as sidekicks. There is no waste here.

Consider spot removal in autumn rather than total eradication. Editing gradually leads to the same svelte results, but you gain maximum impact along the way. The unique feature of this season is that it remakes itself daily. Never accuse autumn of being monotonous. You wake up to something that’s been stripped of leaves in a tailwind. You look out at dusk on something blushing a brighter shade, or blanched a paler hue, or torn asunder in an early-season flurry. And you remake the scene around the new dialogue. Autumn is dynamic. Don’t banish your brown prematurely. Celebrate it. Brown is not the tragedy; brown is the happy ending.


Tovah Martin is a fanatical and passionate organic gardener and the author of The Indestructible Houseplant, The Unexpected Houseplant, The New Terrarium, and Tasha Tudor’s Garden, as well as many other gardening books. Visit her tovahmartin.com.





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