by Ken Lain, the mountain gardener

Mountain landscapes are famous for their autumn colors.  This week’s column is merely a list of the best-colored plants you will find in our area that can be planted in your backyard. Of course, there are more choices, especially if you include ornamental grasses and the mountain flowers that bloom through the end of the year.  For an in-depth tour of all the possibilities of fall plants consider this a personal invitation to visit the plant ambassadors here at Watters Garden Center:)

Here is the list of best mountain plants that can be planted now for autumn beauty:


Grow-Low Sumac spreads like a groundcover over hillsides, and native throughout the mountains of Arizona.   They are so easy to grow and so popular here at Watters that we have four different varieties in stock. Sumacs are the very first plants to show their colors in September and continue through October. They are available in ground cover height that stays below knee level to 12′ towers that almost resemble mountain palm trees but love cold mountain winters.  Gardeners new to xeriscape landscaping presume all sumacs are poisonous.  Not to worry – we never sell poisonous sumacs here at Watters!


Goldflame Spirea is deer and rabbit proof.  An old-fashioned plant made popular by our grandparents, but it’s still a ‘rock star’ in my garden.   It is very easy to grow with little to no maintenance required once established.  My personal favorites have bright gold foliage through summer and just now begin showing their fall colors of purple and reds.  The equally brilliant flowers in April are simply a bonus to this garden showoff.  Add to the drip irrigation cycle, treat it like any tree growing in the yard, and this plant is happy. It looks delicate, but deer, rabbits, and javelina detest the taste and leave this beauty alone.


Burning Bush in color and ready for autumn planting is most famous for it’s burning red foliage that deepens in color through the weeks of  autumn.  It loves mountain sun and wind and performs best when subjected to at least 6-hours of hot sun per day.  Dark green leaves reach to head height and are easily trimmed into hedges for an extra thick shrub.  As the leaves drop the stems become center focus with cork-like veins that reach up and down the entire length of each limb.  Very easy to grow even on the windiest hilltops.


Barberry is most appreciated for its ability to withstand the worst conditions in garden soils, and I rate it as one of the bright little shrubs of fall.  You’ll find at least four different barberries here at Watters most months of the year, but now is when they show their best colors.  Their shades of burgundy, golds, reds, and pinks can often be found on the same bush.  Barberries are so hardy they can be planted right next to the driveway and stand up to the heat. Autumn is the best time to plant all barberries as they continue rooting through winter and wake with excitable new growth in spring. Plant now for season-long interest in containers, raised beds, and/or right in the ground.


Nandina also goes by the name of Heavenly Bamboo.  Yes, the evergreen leaves do resemble bamboo, but at our higher elevation, the top of this plant turns bright red through winter.  It doesn’t make autumn’s most- colored list, but it warrants consideration for its year-long interest.  The autumnal red foliage turns back to spring green at the start of each new growing season.  Compact, rarely needs trimming, evergreen, and turns red in the fall – what more could you ask from a landscape plant?  Oh wait, I forgot; this beauty is animal-proof and won’t be eaten by even the hungriest mammals.


Virginia Creeper grows wild throughout Northern Arizona.   It’s tough enough to be used as a groundcover up broken hillsides, creeping between boulders, or right up a new trellis or chainlink fence.  Commonly mistaken as poison oak, which has three distinct poisonous leaves in a cluster, this creeper has five-leaf clusters without the venom.


It fools the critters as well. They will not touch this vine, even in the wild. Each vine will easily reach eight feet in height, covered with soft green foliage.  Autumn is when we sell the most Virginia Creepers because of its spectacularly red leaves. Very pretty, very hardy, animals won’t bother with it, and little to no water needs once rooted, this mountain plant has it all.


Boston Ivy is entirely different from English Ivy and is much brighter in the garden.  Related to its Virginia Creeper cousin, this plant has an added advantage.  It is one of the few vines that will self-cling to any surface whether a cinder block wall or up a rock face. More orange than red, this natural garden vine resembles an Arizona sunset as it moves into November.  This is the vine that has given Ivy-League schools their collective title. It’s at its best right now.


Silverberry grows wild through the mountains. It is best known for its evergreen toughness, ease of care, and fragrant spring flowers.  We figured out how to add a gold edge to the blue foliage and still maintain its inherited native traits.  It’s a bit outside the autumn-colored box because this new native shrub looks bright all the time, but it shows best now through winter.  It’s a much better choice than the common Red Tipped Photinia for hardiness, low water usage, with little to no care needed.  Once rooted into your garden feel free to cut it off of all care and this evergreen will continue to thrive.  It quickly trims into a privacy hedge or may remain a free-flowing shrub to head height.  It is not attractive to deer or javelinas.


Smoke Bush is an interest mountain plant mostly planted in the summer for the flower that hovers above the foliage like smoke rising in the middle of the landscape.  This shrub grows tall, reaching 10′ within a few years. It is available in a green and gold variety, but is best-loved for its purple foliage that turns bright orange through fall. Its truly stunning transition is unusual for such a drought-hardy plant.  It’s another tall shrub that animals do not like.


Until next issue,  I’ll be here at Watters Garden Center helping local gardeners brighten their autumn landscapes.


Ken Lain can be found throughout the week at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Rd in Prescott, or contacted through his web site at or .