Golden Opportunity

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Golden Opportunity

Take a walk with the proud owner of this glorious New England fall garden. Feast on the colors and ripeness and the sweetness of the season — and you may even end up taking notes

Written by Barbara Paul Robinson
Produced by Peter Walsh
Photograph by Richard Warren

The fresh, crisp smells of fall are unmistakable: sharp, dry, cool air mingles with the rich fragrance of autumn leaves, the woodsy smoke of fire, and the subtle scents of the garden’s final ripening. I love the fall. It’s the time for a final fling of color before the garden settles down into the quiet of winter. It is an especially beautiful time in New England; the wooded hillsides look like rich oriental carpets—a woven blend of deep purple, russet, and gold.

Every garden is a contrivance against nature, but I like mine to look as if it belongs in its New England setting—and around our eighteenth century wooden rustic farmhouse. In every season I have tried to plant to create interest, while respecting and enriching what is already there. In the fall, I plant for added color and texture—and for fruit and seed pods.

Much of my fall garden at Brush Hill, in Washington, Connecticut, has been given to me: The sugar maples produce their own magical show of color that requires no effort on my part other than to act as an appreciative audience. The fields also provide a fall beauty on their own, a tapestry of golds and purples created by wild asters and goldenrod. The stone walls that edge the fields and snake through the woods, tokens of the early settlers who cleared this harsh land, add strength to the garden.

Berries and fruits are important to my sense of fall harvest, and among my favorite berrying plants are the viburnums. There are many to choose from in this large family of shrubs that grow vigorously in both sun and shade, providing flowers in the spring and rich fruits in the fall. After rather quiet spring blooms, the red berry clusters of linden viburnums are vibrant and dramatic, persisting well into December, when a bit of color is especially treasured.

Because our climate is a cold Zone 5, my rose garden includes only tough, old species, chosen for their hardiness, fragrance and, in the case of the rosa rugosa, for their showy rose hips. Most of my roses bloom profusely in June, then go quiet for most of the rest of summer. In the fall, the cool temperatures revive them and they again produce blossoms and fragrance. The large hips of ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’ contrast with the more delicate sprays of Rosa soulicosa, perfect for Christmas arrangements.

Fall is the time when grasses and thistles stand like sentinels in the garden, adding accent and seed heads to the composition. Blue oat grass is a wonderful steely blue most of the year; now it reaches a manageable 2-foot height through the flower borders. Teasels spike up everywhere, and the taller grasses, especially the varieties of miscanthus, begin to show off their tassel-like blooms, gracing the borders of the pond in a wilder part of the garden.

The fall is a time to take stock, to think about next year’s chance to correct and improve upon the efforts of the summer that is passing and, best of all, to plant bulbs. Although I know that many people think of autumn as a melancholy time, as an ending, I see it as a time of beginning. And I view the planting of bulbs as the gardener’s ultimate act of faith. Placing those dried, brown kernels into the cold, bare ground, in an increasingly bleak landscape, I dream of the promise of colorful spring flowers to come.

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Barbara Robinson’s Cues for Fall Color

Crabapples All have beautiful sprig flowers and lasting fall fruits. I have the weeping M. ‘Red Jade,’ M. ‘Snowdrift,’ the larger, white Malus x zumi, and – I couldn’t resist one with my name – M. ‘Robinson’ with its bronzy green leaves.

Hydrangeas The blues and pinks aren’t hardy enough, but I have whites: snowball hydrangea, tree hydrangea, oakleaf hydrangea, and the climbing hydrangea. When they turn rich fall colors, I dry them for arrangements.

Clematis terniflora This tough old favorite remains a reliable climber for sun or part-shade with masses of small, white, fragrant flowers. It also seems impervious to the dreaded clematis wilt.

Sorrel tree Its white lily-of-the-valley-like flowers come late in the summer, followed by unusual deep maroon foliage in the fall.

Maples Sugar maples are the essence of New England’s golden fall color. I’ve added the swamp maple for its bright red leaves.

Sedum A perennial stalwart, S. ‘Autumn Joy’ comes into its own in fall, when the flowers turn from pale rose to deep red-brown. S. ‘Matrona’ has a beautiful blue-gray hue.

Viburnums These resilient woody shrubs do well in sun or part-shade, offering white summer blooms. My favorite is tea viburnum with its shiny bright orange fruit, just made for fall centerpieces.

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