By Robert Gillmore
Drive around New England in the autumn and you’re overwhelmed by this fact: If even the meanest homestead has just one or two large sugar maple trees, its landscape will be almost saturated with stunning orange-red foliage. For just a few miraculous weeks each year, it will have—thanks to nothing but the benevolence of nature—a surpassingly beautiful garden, more splendid than almost any other landscape I know.
Big deciduous trees with brilliant fall foliage do exactly what annual and perennial flowers do: create big bursts of color. But they do it automatically, with almost no effort on your part. One of gardening's most beneficent paradoxes is that the crowns of large deciduous trees, which require no care but annual leaf raking, can create masses of color that are many times larger than even the most earnestly tended flower beds.
And there’s more:
► In the winter, the arching bare branches of big deciduous trees are striking natural sculpture.
► Large deciduous trees can also shade, and therefore help cool your house, in warm weather, thereby saving you hundreds of dollars in long-term air-conditioning or other cooling costs. The dense foliage of maples, oaks and beeches creates the heaviest shade.
► But because deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall, they don’t shade your house in cold weather. On the contrary, they allow sunlight to help heat it, thereby saving you hundreds of dollars of long-term heating costs.
► Deciduous trees also help cool your property by transpiring water vapor through their leaves—but only in warm weather, when the trees are in leaf and the cooling is welcome.
Deciduous trees, in other words, are both natural thermostats and natural brakes against global warming: By automatically providing free heating and cooling, they reduce the need to burn greenhouse-gas fuels.
Sun shines on your house from the east in the morning, the south at midday and the west in the afternoon. To block summer sun, plant deciduous trees on the east, south and west sides of your home—but especially the south and west, because the sun shines there in the warmest parts of the day, when shade is needed most.
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The most valuable large ornamental deciduous trees are probably maples. That’s because their fall color is spectacular, and their dense foliage makes them excellent sun blockers.
Named for its tiny red spring flowers and brilliant scarlet autumn foliage, red maple (Acer rubrum) is hardy to Zone 3 (average minimum temperature: -40 degrees Fahrenheit), so it can grow in any region of New Hampshire. The cultivar ‘October Glory’ holds its crimson foliage for weeks after other maples have lost their leaves. ‘Armstrong’ creates still more color with its beautiful silver-gray bark.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) doesn’t grow as fast as red maple, and its fall foliage is sometimes the more common yellow, instead of the showier red or orange. But sugar maples have an impressive signature shape: short, massive trunks and short, stout branches that form immense oval crowns. They’re hardy to Zone 4 (average minimum temperature: -30 degrees Fahrenheit), so they can grow in almost any region of New Hampshire except far-northern Coos County.
Most oaks aren't as colorful as maples. But several species produce rich red fall foliage, and oak leaves tend to linger until winter, so they provide welcome late-season color.
The stately red oak (Quercus rubrum) is named for its maroon red foliage. Pin oak (Quercus palustris) produces bronze or scarlet autumn leaves. The handsome, spreading (but slow-growing) white oak (Quercus alba) sports purplish red fall foliage. Red oak is hardy to Zone 3; pin oak and white oak, to Zone 4.
American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is slow growing and its fall foliage is golden brown, not red or orange. But its leaves persist into the winter; its smooth bark is a lovely gray; older trees develop handsome, gnarled, bulging trunks; and it’s hardy to Zone 4 (possibly even Zone 3).
Much more colorful are cultivars of European beech (Fagus sylvatica), which sport various shades of purple foliage. Many of them gradually turn greener or browner over the summer, but ‘Riversii’ (also called ‘Atropunicea’ and ‘Purpurea’) and ‘Spaethiana’ (or ‘Spathiana’) tend to hold their deep purple or red-purple color all summer long. European beech is probably less cold-tolerant than American beech, but it’s still considered hardy to Zone 4.
Northern catalpa bean tree (Catalpa speciosa) is valued less for its bright yellow fall foliage than for its immense tropical-looking heart-shaped leaves; its two-inch-wide, trumpet-shaped white spring flowers; and its decorative ten- to 20-inch-long seed pods that dangle from the tree after its leaves drop, a bit like giant string beans. It’s hardy to Zone 4.
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With deciduous trees, size matters. Bigger is better. The older, and therefore more massive they are, the more shade they cast, the bigger their splash of foliage or flower color, and the more impressive their sculpture: that is, the thicker their trunks, the richer their bark texture, the larger their root flare, and the longer and thicker their branch structure. If you don’t already have some in your yard, plant some now.
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Next time I’ll explain how needle evergreen trees can provide accents, privacy and year-round foliage color.
- Written by Ginger Kozlowski
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