Fall-foliage splendor at Old Westbury Gardens.

Fall-foliage splendor at Old Westbury Gardens. Credit: Vince Kish

As we tuck the garden into bed, our own dreams usually center on next summer's perennial show. But why not consider something you'll enjoy even sooner? Now's the time to plant trees for great fall foliage, plants that will add interest to your winter garden and those wonderful spring bulbs.

Autumn showstoppers

Before the inevitable crunch of leaves under our feet, we can always count on a dramatic burst of fiery color to capture our fall fascination. Why not surround your home with some blazing foliage and enjoy autumn fireworks right in your own backyard? Here are three favorites to plant after their leaves have dropped:

Birch (Betula sp.)

While these fast growers can tolerate partial shade, plant them in full sun for best color. Acidic soil is necessary for good health. In addition to a bright autumn leaf show, many species exhibit beautiful exfoliating bark, which adds interest to the winter garden as well.

Korean mountain ash (Sorbus alnifolia)

Actually a member of the rose family, this underused beauty provides true four-season interest, starting with white flowers in spring, then reddish-orange berries in summer, orange autumn foliage and shiny bark in winter, making it worth seeking out. Expect it to exceed 40 feet in height.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Unusual fan-shaped leaves on these large trees put on a spectacular show in fall and then drop quickly, which is convenient if you don't like the ritual of repeated raking. A good choice for the South Shore and East End, these trees thrive in sandy soil, are salt-tolerant and can grow to 80 feet tall.

Winter wonders

For many, the winter garden is beige, gray and, if we're lucky, brown. And the cruel irony is that it's during that cold, oft-unforgiving season that we need the garden most. Here are three plants that are sure to lift your spirits on even the darkest and bleakest of days.

Redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea)

Ho-hum during summer, this shrub becomes a dramatic, eye-catching showstopper in the snow. It grows to 6 to 9 feet tall in full sun to partial shade but can be kept trimmed to a smaller size.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma)

Used as a hedge or specimen, this shrub grows to 2 to 4 feet tall with a 3- to 5-foot spread. Although it blooms in spring, it is valued for its dramatic display of lilac-violet fruit that becomes visible after its leaves have fallen. The berries hold on all winter, contrasting beautifully with landscape snow.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)

Give this vine an arbor or trellis to climb and stand back. Growing 10 to 15 feet tall in full sun to partial shade, it will even thrive in full shade (but with reduced flowering). It performs best in well-drained sandy loams, and requires moist soil. Blooms begin in March and last about a month.

Spring splendor

The early bird catches the worm, for sure, and that's no truer anywhere than in the garden. If you'd like a rainbow of color come March, you'll need to get to work now.

Bulbs cost money, and the time spent on your knees planting them isn't easy, so it's heartbreaking when spring rolls around and you realize you've done it wrong. Too many gardeners sprinkle bulbs around the garden in groupings of twos and threes, or plant them in single-file rows, with unimpressive results.

Bulbs are best planted en masse -- in large groupings of dozens or even hundreds. If you haven't the commitment to go that large, then at least plant what you have all together in one spot to create a focal point. And if you haven't much space, no worries: You can plant bulbs in deep containers and leave them in the garden all winter.

Before planting, prepare beds by incorporating a complete 5-10-5 fertilizer into soil at the rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet and tilling it several inches deep. This is also the time to incorporate compost to improve soil and drainage. If planting in containers, add a layer of pebbles to the bottom of pots, and use a good-quality potting mix that contains a balanced fertilizer.

To discourage critters from digging up bulbs, add a handful of crushed oyster shells, available by the bag at most nurseries, to planting holes. The pests find the texture of the shells irritating and will keep away, and the nutrients that will leach from the shells will nourish your bulbs.

For the best display, bulb plants require full sun. Remember that the areas around deciduous trees also are sunny in early spring before leaves fill out overhead, which is when many spring bulbs bloom, so make use of those spaces as well.

The size of a bulb is directly related to its required planting depth. As a rule of thumb, plant bulbs at a depth 21/2 times their diameter.

When life hands you bulbs, make lasagna

Layering bulbs -- or lasagna planting -- is the practice of piggybacking bulbs in the same hole, layering them with soil as one would noodles, sauce and cheese. Using this method, the largest bulbs go in deepest and the smaller ones are planted right on top of them. You might, for instance, plant tulip or daffodil bulbs 8 or 9 inches deep, cover them with soil and add earlier-flowering bulbs like crocuses above them. The crocuses will surface and bloom first, and the tulips or daffodils will follow, providing a longer season of color from the exact same spot. (Planting depths are determined by bulb size, not bloom time, so you can plant early, mid- and late-bloomers at the same depth, if that is what's indicated by their sizes. They'll know when to bloom.)

What's more, bulbs with different depth requirements but the same bloom time can be layered to create a mixed bed (or container). Keep bloom times in mind when selecting varieties.

Here are two layering combinations I'll be planting this fall.

For mid-spring blooms

Suncatcher tulip and Grape hyacinth

For a bright pop of color, I'm planting Tulip Suncatcher and Muscari Armeniacum (grape hyacinth). They will bloom simultaneously by the front door in mid-spring (May). The Suncatcher bulbs (which will reach 18 inches tall) will go in 6 inches deep, covered with 2 inches of soil, and a layer of the Muscari bulbs (which will reach 6 inches tall) will go on top of them at a total depth of 4 inches. (You can find this combination at longfield-gardens.com)

For an early-late combination

Daffodils, squill, Camassia

For early-season cheerfulness, I'm planting blue squill and "Cassata" daffodils together. They'll bloom simultaneously, and after their flowers fade Camassia will bloom and soon be joined by "Cheerfulness" and "Yellow cheerfulness" daffodils in the same bed.

Both "Cheerfulness" daffodil varieties, which will bloom simultaneously at 15 inches tall, will go in at 6 inches deep, mixed in with the cassata bulbs, which will reach 14 inches tall and precede them in the same spot. They all will be covered with 3 inches of soil and topped with a layer of blue squill, which will grow 6 inches tall. Three more inches of soil will top the planting. (You can find these bulbs at colorblends.com)

Lasagna ingredient suggestions

Bottom layer (noodle) bulbs




Middle layer (sauce) bulbs



Top layer (cheese) bulbs

Chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow)


Muscari (grape hyacinth)

Anemone (windflower)


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