By Renate Tilson

Come fall, many of us put away our tools and thoughts of gardening. But, now is the time to rethink which planting season is best in the Pacific Northwest. Here in the Willamette Valley, October is the premier time to shop for foliage as this is when trees, shrubs, and perennials are showing their true autumn colors. As you stroll or drive through fall’s splendor, consider how you might bring some of this late season joy to your own garden. By emphasizing colors, textures, and forms, you can enjoy drama and contrast even after the last bright summer blooms fade. It’s a good idea to make selections at your favorite nursery now while the colors are at their peak. By shopping at the peak of the fall foliage season, you will know just what wonderful fall colors you are getting.

The Willamette Valley climate blesses us with generally mild, moist winters. Trees and shrubs planted in fall still have time to establish and continue producing healthy root systems as long as the ground temperature is above 40 degrees. Plants will quickly make themselves at home in autumn’s softening light, cooling nights, and still-warm earth. Amend your planting soil with compost or other organic mix, add some root stimulator, and go for it. Now is the time they are pre-programmed to do most of their root growing. Think how nice it will be to have new plants in the ground now, established and ready to take off next spring.

Many shrubs now bear colorful berries at their peak of color. Heavenly bamboo displays red fruit growing in grape-like clusters. Snowberry, an Oregon native, has berries in purest white. The fruits of cotoneaster get redder as the fall weather gets chillier. Spruce up your fall landscape by planting sumac, elderberry, or mock orange—which also supply food and shelter for birds.

Tall nodding ornamental grasses are the highlight of the late-season landscape as their seed heads wave back and forth in the autumn breezes. Purple fountain grass becomes more intensely colored. Cold-resistant maiden grass, with its striped leaves, becomes golden with the first frost. The “autumn joy” variety of sedum is named for its rich maroon leaf hues and heads of coppery flowers.

Nothing beats the many varieties of maples available for just plain bright foliage. Make a selection now for guaranteed repeat performances year after year. You will love oxydendrons flashing scarlet and purple in fall. Ginkgo biloba, also known as the gold maidenhair tree, turns a butter yellow each fall without fail. I love the purple smoke tree—dark burgundy all year—as it turns reddish purple in autumn.

Home improvement stores’ plant sections are empty now, put away for the season. However, nurseries do still have sales going on. Plants are bigger now than those available in spring and will thrive if carefully placed and well mulched. While you’re at it, why not set out some winter crop starts like beets, kale, and a row of lettuce?

The Oregon fog will soon be upon us. As the sun threatens to leave, take heart in the brightness offered by the joys of fall foliage before us.