How to get great fall color, with tips from the ultimate Northwest garden
1 of 8David E. Perry
“If I’m home, I’m in the garden,” says John Albers. After long days working as a medical researcher—a job that he describes as “all facts, occasionally opinions, never passion”—Albers savors his hillside retreat in Bremerton, Washington. Fall is an especially magical time here: That’s when the garden explodes with color, the yellow katsuras, burgundy sourwoods, and red maples displaying their autumn finery over blond grasses and purple barberries.
Albers, a native Midwesterner, discovered his passion for plants when he moved to the Northwest for a job at the University of Washington back in the 1970s. “As soon as I saw the Northwest—the beauty and the plants and the possibilities—I was inspired to learn more,” he says. During his off-hours, Albers sat in on the university’s landscape design classes, and by the early 2000s, he had bought a house and 4 acres of land (a former orchard) to transform into his own garden. Trees went in first, to give the garden structure. Paths came next, following the hillside’s topography. Then Albers chose an array of plants, focusing on those that could survive wholly on their own after the first year. Large sections of the garden are devoted to dwarf conifers, heaths, and heathers; between them, he carpeted shaded grounds with woodland perennials and tucked in plants that attract pollinators.
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Visit the garden
What began as a private respite grew into an exceptional collection of Northwest plants (more than 1,200 varieties at last count). Albers opens his garden to the public several days a month and regularly gives neighbors permission to visit to forage for berries, take pictures, or just absorb the peace of the place. “The garden is a source of pride and pleasure,” Albers says. “I love sharing it.”
Plan a visit: Albers Vista Gardens opens to the public a few days every month from spring through fall. Cost is $10 per person on open days, $7 each for group tours, or $20 for an annual membership. Check albersvistagardens.org for open days and directions. You can also learn more about the garden in Albers’s book, Gardening for Sustainability (Vista Gardens Press, 2013; $32).
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Fine-leafed ornamental grasses like Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ look especially striking against shrubs like Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea ‘Rose Glow’).
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Choose a seasonal palette
Trees (such golden larch, pictured) create a colorful patchwork in fall, while dark green conifers anchor the space.
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Give color a backdrop
he best way to show off a bright color like yellow is against a dark screen. Here, a katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) glows in front of the dark green American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis‘Smaragd’).
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Accent with art
Garden sculptures can provide a visual break from large swaths of color. Bigger is usually better, as is the case with this oversize copper-colored urn, which stands tall and stately against a deep purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria).
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Grow berry-producing plants
Buy fruiting plants in fall, when you can see what you’re getting. Albers’s favorite winter berries: purple-berried beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri giraldii ‘Profusion’) and white-berried snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus).
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Brighten shaded spots
Look for colorful shade-loving plants like perennial ivy-leafed cyclamen (C. hederifolium) or C. coum (which flowers in winter). Both plants feed pollinators during the coldest months.