Create an autumn rainbow

Autumn border.jpg

Pink anemones, blue aconitums, grasses, autumn foliage and berries create a colour display. Helen Billiald explains how to get the look

None of us wants to wave goodbye to summer. Gardeners up and down the land are intent on coaxing colour into their autumn borders, delighting at every flower that dares raise its head. Bleached grasses are invaluable for the way they stand into winter like elegant torches, but nothing beats the blaze of colour that comes from autumn foliage and berries.

In this planting scheme the butter-yellow berries of sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ glow all the brighter for their flame-leaved backdrop of Euonymus planipes. Add the shock of blue aconitums and pink anemones and this is one show determined to close with a bang! 


Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ Yellow-berried mountain ash with orange, scarlet and purple-hued autumn foliage. Cream flowers in May followed by berries that darken to amber. H8m (26ft) S6m (20ft)

Euonymus planipes Flat-stalked spindle tree. Leaves turn a brilliant red in autumn while inedible deep pink to scarlet hanging fruit split to reveal orange seeds.
H and S3m (10ft)

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ Compact grass with arching deciduous silvery-green leaves. Feathery flowers mature to silver and stand into winter. H90cm (3ft) S60cm (2ft)

Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ Upright deciduous feather grass with bronze-purple flowers from July fading to pale buff. Stands well over winter. H1.8m (6ft) S60cm (2ft)

Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’ Spires of hooded, bright blue flowers in mid-autumn. Herbaceous perennial; all parts are toxic so wear gloves when handling. H1.5m (5ft) S60cm (2ft)

Anemone hupehensis ‘Bowles’s Pink’ Rich pink anemone with bright yellow stamens Sept-Nov. Herbaceous perennial, spreads rapidly when happy. H90cm (3ft) S60cm (2ft)


With the sorbus and euonymus at its heart, this is a long-term planting scheme, so don’t rush site preparation. Work across the area, removing perennial weeds, breaking up compacted ground and digging in well-rotted organic matter.

All the plants in this border prefer a moisture-retentive, fertile but well-drained soil. Adding well-rotted compost helps nudge your soil towards these conditions, whether you’re on a sandy loam or heavy clay.

 1. Establish the sorbus and euonymus

Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ can be bought bareroot from November through to March much cheaper than a container-grown specimen, although pot-grown plants are available all year round.

When positioning the tree, keep in mind its potential height and spread and remember that it prefers a sunny or part-shaded site. Keep it well watered during its first growing season.

You’ll usually find container-grown  euonymus rather than bareroot. This unfussy plant can cope with most soil types but it’s still best to wait until spring to plant if you’re on heavier ground. Neither tree needs routine pruning but winter is the best time to remove diseased or damaged branches and to carry out desired shaping.

2. Lay out the grasses

Miscanthus and calamagrostis are two brilliantly dependable grasses that reward you with months of structure and movement in the garden. Plant them in spring, positioning the taller calamagrostis towards the back of your border and bringing the smaller arching miscanthus forwards. Neither need winter support other than the occasional tidying of collapsed stems after heavy winds. Eventually, in late winter or early spring, cut the old stems back ready for the new growth to come through. Divide established clumps
in spring once new growth has begun.  

3. Finish with the aconitum and anemone

Aconitums are beautiful plants but remember, when handling them, that they’re highly toxic. Establish new plants in spring adding extra compost to the planting hole to ensure a fertile, moisture-retentive soil and make sure they don’t go short of water over their first growing season. They like part shade and although growth may be slow at first, they establish generous clumps when happy. Aim to divide them every three years in autumn or spring for best vigour.

Anemone ‘Bowles’s Pink’ is a robust, easy-going plant that’s happy with sunshine or part shade. Plants are susceptible to powdery mildew, so a bit of shade can help prevent them from drying out too much. Once established, they’ll ‘walk’ their way around the border and may need thinning out. Lift and divide in late autumn or early spring. If you’re after lots of plants quickly, try propagating them by root cuttings when the plants are dormant in winter.