How to Optimize a Landscape for Fall Color

Lessons from a California landscape on designing a subtle approach to fall color

Mike Irvine
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Late Bloomer

Landscape designer John Greenlee is serious about seasons. No matter what month it may be on the calendar—yes, even in October—he believes there should be moments that stop you in your tracks. At this sprawling wine-country estate, Greenlee and owners Sue Bloch and Igor Khandros have spent the past decade carving out an impressive five acres to do exactly that. “Just because we’re in California,” says Greenlee, “it doesn’t mean we can’t have fall color.” The former kids’ day camp and party pad of an ex-NFL player now features rolling meadows, forest enclaves, pondside views, and a collection of more than 200 Japanese maples and conifers. The result is lush and soothing through spring and summer but also ripe with eye-catching texture and glorious foliage that evokes classic New England color in autumn and winter. No matter the size of your growing plot (or budget), you can achieve a similar cool-season look with the following four principles.

DESIGN Greenlee and Associates; greenleeandassociates.com

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Middle Ground

Add midsize specimens that fill the
 void between taller trees and low grasses. Compact dwarf Japanese black pines (Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’) fit that bill: “With a billowy branching habit,” says Greenlee, “it looks like a thunderstorm building on a hot afternoon.”
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Going with the Flow

Don’t fight soil conditions. If an area in your yard is wet and mucky—especially come winter—choose a variety that can handle that environment. At the pond’s edge, Greenlee added swaths of hardy water canna (Thalia dealbata) that don’t mind a soggy home. “It’s plant-driven design,” he says. “You just need the right plant for the situation.”
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Leaf Peepers

For vibrant foliage that packs a punch come autumn, Greenlee recommends bald cypresses, gingkos, Japanese maples, mulberries, Kentucky coffee trees, and willows. In this case, he used an orange-hued bald cypress with bush grass (Calamagrostis epigejos) in the foreground.
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Twists and Turns

Cut pathways through your yard for leisurely strolls. Trails get you out and into the space, and give you easier access for maintenance. “Make curves that open up to a big reveal,” says Greenlee. Below, the path is made of Carex pansa and lined with Sesleria ‘Greenlee Hybrid’.