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It’s a great idea to set aside a portion of your yard or landscape for a beautiful display of fall color.

But first, the caveats.

From spring through early fall, this garden passage will be mostly green, so plan to add some interest: possibly a stretch of spring bulbs splashing the ground with color, or a statue placed at a focal point. Or you could add a few fruit trees and fruit-bearing shrubs to make visiting the area worthwhile before the big fall show, and include some flowering and scented woody plants like daphnes.

Also, remember that the radiant fall color is the result of your plants senescing; that is, they are deciduous and the color comes when the leaves are getting ready to fall off. If you’ve visited New England during its annual fall color extravaganza, you’ll know that shortly after the show is over, the forests and meadows turn into leafless gray and black copses of dormancy (except for the evergreens), and stay that way for the next six months.

We have a more benign climate here. And while the plants that dazzle in October and November are leafless during the winter, our winters are generously decorated with evergreens of all kinds, green annual grasses that make our landscapes look like Eastern summers, rains that get our winter creeks flowing and tumbling with water, flocks of robins escaping the harsh winter to the north and east of here, and plenty of winter-blooming plants like begonia, camellia and cheery calendula. To cap it off, the leaves start coming back in February.

So with all that in mind, which plants might you choose for a rich display of fall color?

Start with the maples, of which there are many species and hundreds of varieties. Among the best for autumn color are the Japanese maples (Acer palmatum and A.p. dissectum), the red maple (Acer rubrum), and of course, the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) with an absolutely spectacular display of yellow, orange, deep red and scarlet leaves in fall. Although it’s one of the chief color trees in New England, it thrives in Sonoma County as long as it’s deeply watered a few times during the summer drought.

Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is a prickly, unassuming shrub until fall, when its leaves turn yellow, orange and red before falling. And blueberry bushes not only give us fresh fruit in summer, but their leaves turn yellow or scarlet in fall. Like their relatives the rhododendrons, they demand an acid soil (pH 4.5-5.5).

Both Eastern and Western Redbuds (Cercis spp.) give us some of the best early color when they flower in late winter, but also dapple their site with bright yellow and red fall leaves.

The leaves of Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa) turn yellow to scarlet in fall, but for winter interest, pair a Kousa with Red Twig and Yellow Twig dogwood shrubs whose woody stems are bright red and yellow respectively all winter.

Eastern Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) trees are a common sight in the North Bay, frequently planted for the purple, yellow and red colors of their fall leaves. Their color is brighter and more consistent in the varieties bred especially for our coastal climate. These varieties include “Burgundy,” “Festival” and “Palo Alto.”

The Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) looks something like a redwood and therefore might be evergreen, but it is deciduous, turning a rich reddish-brown before dropping its needles in fall. It was thought to be extinct for millions of years until a specimen was found in a Chinese garden in the early 20th century. It’s a perfect tree for a garden’s focal point, both for its history and its stunning fall color.

Among additional shrubs for great fall color, don’t forget the Grace Smoke Bush (Cotinus x “Grace”), with rich orange and purple-red foliage in fall. Winged Euonymus (Euonymus alatus) makes an impressive statement when its leaves turn bright red in fall. For a fall garden of color, think about grouping several of them together for a massive display.

Probably no plants you can choose are more brilliantly colorful in fall than the Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) and Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina). Their scarlet to orange fall color is like a beacon in the garden. Plant them where they can be seen against a dark background for maximum effect, such as among evergreens. Their color is enough to take your breath away. And don’t worry about toxic foliage. Poison oak used to be classified as Rhus, but now it’s been reclassified as Toxicodendron. In fact, people in Appalachia, where they are native, use the seedheads of the Staghorns to make what they call a calming “nervine” tea.

Finally, there’s a vine worth mentioning: Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) grows just fine here in Northern California, and its pretty five-petaled compound leaves turn burgundy and scarlet in fall. Run it along a fence or wall in your fall-color garden. It could just become the star of the show.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer who can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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