Make your garden shine in autumn by thinking in top-to-bottom tiers of color.

Michigan gardener David Baker is a mix master when it comes to artfully combining textural plants at his Ann Arbor home. A canopy of brilliant maple trees creates a backdrop for his garden's ongoing layers of evergreens, shrubs, stonework and perennial plantings. Here are a few layering lessons we gleaned from his fall garden tapestry.

sun through Kentucky coffee tree
Sun filters through the Kentucky coffee tree by a bluestone patio. David buys his trees and plants from regional sources, such as Wildtype native plant nursery in Michigan, because he finds plants grown in the north tend to be hardier and better adapted to his growing conditions. The steps on the right lead to a bridge over a stream.
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Create a Canopy

Tall shade trees create the framework for David Baker's garden. He inherited mature sugar maples, red maples, cherries and native oaks with the property. Over the years, he's added hardwoods sourced from a local native tree nursery. Beyond color, look for trees with interesting leaf shapes like the intricate, compound leaves of a Kentucky coffee tree.

gravel garden seating under pergola
David turned a sunny lawn along the driveway into a gravel garden. He mounded mason sand and limestone gravel and planted native prairie perennials like gaura, little and big bluestem, prairie dropseed, and native aster. Containers hold tropical cannas, and the pergola is draped in clematis 'Bill Mackenzie'.
| Credit: Bob Stefko

Add Evergreens

Conifers like white pine, hemlock and juniper may not seasonally change color, but they do offer year-round interest (and wildlife habitat), with soft needles, interesting pinecones and fall berries. David says hemlocks are ideal for partly to mostly shady Midwest gardens, but keep in mind, they don't tolerate wind. He also uses finely branched upright conifers like this Thuja plicata 'Smaragd' to serve as sentinel markers to indicate transitions in garden layers.

fall garden with pops of color
Credit: Bob Stefko

Incorporate Understory Trees

Use smaller understory trees to accent woodland edges, frame a view or embellish a patio. David welcomes non-natives, such as Japanese maple and stewartia, and natives like sourwood and dogwood. (His favorite is Venus dogwood.) He also likes reliable redbuds, which turn golden in fall. "They're iron clad and so ornamental with beautiful purple flowers in spring and golden leaves in fall," he says.

linden viburnum
Credit: Bob Stefko

Let Shrubs Star

Viburnums are David's go-to shrubs (he has 40!), delivering flowers in spring and colorful foliage and berries in fall. Try 'Winterthur' or possumhaw. Other shrubs with fall interest include Hydrangea serrata and the gloriously colored native spicebush, which David prefers to the more common (and invasive) burning bush. 

stone stairs in wooded garden
Credit: Bob Stefko

Mimic Nature's Stonework

Stonework is a central feature throughout David's garden. The interplay of rocks and plants takes its cues from an Appalachian streambed – and memories from working a summer in the Smoky Mountains as a teen. Streambeds consist of gravel, small river rocks and large boulders; this diversity makes the stream appear natural.

aromatic aster
Credit: Bob Stefko

Choose Perennials with Fall Appeal

Long-flowering perennials with fall appeal accent David's borders, paths and water features. He also likes pairing plants with contrasting textures, matching boldly textured ones with softer ones. Blue star adds a soft golden layer. Giant hyssop blooms with purple spires. Aromatic asters, such as 'Raydon's Favorite', are native, pollinator-friendly substitutes for hybrid mums. Or try Rabdosia longituba, a more obscure woodland plant with purple tubular flowers.