When space is at a premium, you need to make discerning choices and sidestep plants that are too big or only contribute for two weeks in October. But there are many candidates of modest size, compact habit and other winning ways.
The katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum - see below left) is a favourite of mine, although it gets big, up to 20m (66ft), so I grow the smaller ‘Boyd’s Dwarf’ (at around 2m/6½ft) and weeping C. japonicum f. pendulum, which is a slimmer alternative to weeping willow. The leaves turn yellow or pinkish-red in autumn, and a caramel scent wafts about the tree. When it's elusive in the air, pick up handfuls of fallen leaves and find the scent there.
By contrast, the crushed fruits of Ginkgo biloba (below right) smell horrid but are seldom produced in the UK. Ginkgo – which is actually a deciduous conifer – has a tall, slender shape (30m x 8m / 100ft x 26ft after 100 years or more) that commends it for smaller gardens, where its fan-shaped leaves turn a rich lemon in autumn. There are several dwarf selections such as G. biloba ‘Troll’ which grows slowly to around 1m (39in) tall and across.
Fade to red
Sumachs including Rhus typhina (below right) and R. x pulvinata Autumn Lace Group ‘Red Autumn Lace’ offer rich colours. They are wide-spreading rather than upright, to around 5m (16ft) tall and across, but they can be kept small by pollarding. In really small gardens, R. typhina Tiger Eyes (‘Bailtiger’) with yellow-green summer leaves, turning orange in autumn and reaching just 1.8m (6ft) high would make a good choice.
For dazzle and elegant leaf shape, however, it is hard to beat Japanese maples. Even in sunless autumns I have found maple leaves to be more reliable in my garden than other plants. I grow the taller kinds, which grow slowly to little more than 5m (16ft): Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ (below left) which gives some of the best reds of any tree, and A. palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ (coral-bark maple), which turns yellow and is so attractive in winter.
I am a fan of amelanchiers, which range from multi-stemmed A. lamarckii to fastigiate A. alnifolia ‘Obelisk’. If plants get too big (none get much taller than 10m/33ft, usually less) they are easily pruned to size. Fiery autumn tints are a family trait, with A. x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ having been singled out for its particularly good red. The spring display of blossom is brief but pretty; in summer, plants melt into any rural backdrop.
Positioning your plants for maximum effect
As a general rule, autumn-tinting plants need sunlight to perform really well; deep shade is hopeless. If you can plant your tinting trees so that they are backlit by the sun, colours can take on the brilliance of a stained-glass window. Attractive heart-shaped foliage saves large woodland shrubs such as Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ from being one-season wonders.
Sun-loving shrubs with similar qualities include Cotinus ‘Grace’ (which can be stooled in spring to keep to it in bounds), with coppery orange autumn foliage, and oak leaved Hydrangea quercifolia, a well-behaved shrub with deep red leaves following panicles of white florets. I wish I had room for all.