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In search of a perfect Autumn display

A sea of Spring bulbs is a beautiful sight, so too the intense colour of a Summer border, but neither can compete with the riot of reds, oranges and yellows as the green leaves of Summer give way to the colder shorter days of Autumn.

While Autumn gives us some of the most colourful scenes nature has to offer, it can also be the ficklest of the seasons, a tree with a jaw-dropping display of fiery red leaves one year, can be drab and underwhelming the next. What influences that? Why can't we guarantee a spectacular display every year? The answer is complicated. For that perfect Autumn display we need to look back, back as far as the previous growing year. What we need is a decent growing season, nothing special at this stage, just no major droughts and a decent bit of sun. So, nothing to stress the plants, that way they go into the next year in good health. But before we get to the next growing season along comes Winter and this plays its part in the quality of colour the following Autumn too. We don’t want any crazy record low temperatures that may damage some plants, but we do need a few frosts, so the plants go properly dormant. Plants like a good sleep in winter and so a mild winter where they never quite stop growing isn’t ideal.

Now we get to the important bit, the growing season just before Autumn. We need Spring and Summer to be great growing times, with lots of sunshine and no prolonged dry spells. Sounds straightforward and it is, but the problem is it never really happens. Our Summers can often be much wetter than is ideal or increasingly we have periods of baking hot dry weather that stresses plants. If we do manage this great growing season, how does it give us the Autumn we are looking for? The sun lets the leaves build up all the compounds needed to give those amazing colours and the rain means they never get dry and tatty looking.

For our gardens in Preston, 2023 hasn't been too bad. Last year was a decent growing year, Winter was good, and Spring and Summer have been perfect, so what could possibly go wrong in Autumn? What we need would be a cold settled spell. Night time temperatures nice and low, but still dry sunny days, with beautiful blue skies providing the foil for fiery foliage. When you consider all of that, the perfect Autumn is a big ask and the frequent storms and heavy rain didn't help. But the good news is we don’t need perfection to give impressive displays and there are trees that will look beautiful even in terrible growing years. I enjoy the chase for the perfect conditions even if they never come.

Particular highlights for me this Autumn have been the avenue of Lime Trees in Haslam Park, turning a lovely golden yellow and the range of colours on show in the rock garden in Avenham Park. If you love Autumn too why not share some pictures with us or let just let us know some good spots in and around the city.

Chris Taylor, Horticulture Project Officer Grange Community Garden Let's Grow Preston.


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