The best fall-colored trees for the tri-city

It's that time of year again. You'll find your local garden centers restocking for the fall and winter seasons. Fall colors abound in rich colors of red maples, golden aspens, orange of sweetgum, and the royal purples ash.

Garden centers are all bringing in fresh stock now, so we have time to harden off the new growth and give the plants time to adjust to our local climate before the onset of winter. Our current shipments of broadleaf evergreens such as nandina, Oregon grape, cotoneaster and holly all need this time to acclimate to the tri-city area.

Garden centers like to bring in their fall-colored trees now just as they turn color. This fresh stock has had an entire season to grow and root into their containers. Many times these fall plants can be much larger for the same amount of money to their spring comparable.

This is the time to look for larger specimen trees that can't be dug out of the fields until now. Unusual specimens you rarely see in spring roll in with all the "Wow" you could expect from exotic specimens. The last truckload of trees I shipped from Oregon had some very unusual corkscrew willow that were a landscape designers dream.

Any garden center that does work on the design and landscape installation side of the business will be stocking up to carry their inventory levels through February. This guarantees their outdoor designers enough plant material to use through the winter months.

The question is always asked, "Can I continue to landscape and plant through winter?" The answer is yes. I have planting and landscape crews out in the middle of January installing new landscape features. The occasional snowstorm may hold us back a few days, but we usually get back on schedule.

Our season is so mild here in Yavapai County that there's no month we stop planting. The summers are mild and plants transplant very well; you just have to be careful of the watering schedule. The winters are so mild that the plants have little transplant shock and continue to root into the surrounding soils, making ready for next spring's growth.

Trees are best adapted for fall plantings. This is the season they show off their fall colors. Some of my favorite plants for the tri-cities area are picked for their hardiness, easy of care, water use, and beauty.

Autumn blaze maple – acer freemanii "autumn blaze" – is my best choice for classic red maple colors in fall. This tree has a dense oval form that grows to about 40 feet. I would consider it a moderate water user, yet it still maintains a fast growth rate.

The most important feature of this maple is the reduced leaf tatter caused by windstorms in the spring. I have seen beautiful specimens taking on the elements out in the Chino Valley and Paulden areas.

If you want color all year round with flowers in spring so bright you would think someone turned a light switch on the tree, yet have the best orange colors in fall, you have to consider the forest pansy redbud – cercis canadensis "forest pansy". This is a small tree to about 12 feet and most frequently comes in a multi-trunked form. The leaves are in the shape of a heart to 4 inches across. The fall color changes from reds to yellows, giving the tree an interesting orange contrast of colors. Summer leaf color is green, with new growth forming purple.

The people's choice award in the mountains of Arizona are quaking aspen, or populus tremuloides, Latin for trembling leaf poplar. Growing in the wild at the 6,000-plus foot elevation, this Arizona native is well suited for the tri-cities area. Generally considered a high water user, my experience has led me to believe otherwise.

Our clay soils allow you to water this 60-foot tree just like the rest of your yard.

Aspen have that classic pure white bark like a birch, but handles our clay soils much better than birch. Dainty leaves that literally shake and quake in the lightest of breeze. For a natural look with aspen, plant them in groups in the yard or buy a clump of aspen in the same container. They are social trees and like to hang out together in groups.

A newcomer to the area is the Japanese pagoda tree, sophora japonica "regent". The fall color is a lacy golden yellow that makes a spectacular contrast in color and texture with trees such as maples, sycamore and ash, and it is a fast growing tree featuring moderate water use.

I love this tree when it forms small white flowers shaped liked Japanese pagodas at the end of the branches. If you see one in bloom you'll be forced to stop and notice the beauty of the delicate blooms. This tree is especially fond of our clay soils and alkaline water.

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If you like more hands-on classroom experience with gardening, our fall garden class series starts today and is held every Saturday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. here at Watters Garden Center. Today's class is "Fabulous Bulbs, Cool Season Bloomers and Winter Ponds" taught by nursery professional Terri Kitchen, a longtime gardener in the area. Next week is "Colorful Winter Container Gardens" – one of my favorite forms of gardening.

Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.

Ken Lain is the owner of Watters Home and Garden Center and is an Arizona Certified Nursery Professional and Master Gardener.