ORNAMENTAL STEMS AND BARK
It is during the long cold winter months when there is a distinct lack of flowers that we can appreciate other forms of colour in our gardens. There is a wide range of plants grown for winter attraction because of their coloured stems and ornamental bark. These are best displayed in a large group or drift to give impact. Choose a spot that will catch the winter sun and make sure it is well drained, but not dry. Cultivate the soil, adding plenty of garden compost or other organic material to improve the soil structure and add humus. My winter garden is based on heathers, coloured stemmed trees and shrubs, winter flowering shrubs and climbers such as Jasmine, and a carpet of aconite and snowdrop bulbs to add and extend the interest well beyond the winter. Daffodils and tulips can also be used to add colour in spring, then tall oriental scented lilies in summer.
In autumn the show begins when the tree and shrubs lose their leaves to reveal the brilliant red stems of Cornus sibirica Westonbirt and Mid-winter Fire, bright green stems of Kerria japonica and Leycesteria Formosa and the dazzling orange stemmed willow, Salix britzensis emerging from the ground cover of the black grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens. This grass is quite black forming dense ground hugging clumps that give a perfect background to both the bright stems and also a drift of snowdrops. Now white on black; that’s different.
I did have a black stemmed Cornus kesselringii but I am afraid it was a curiosity, not quite a thing of beauty, so it has been relegated to the shade border.
If you wish to try some grey stems look out a Rubus giraldianus, but treat it carefully as it has vicious thorns making it perfect for any vandal prone areas. Another excellent tall shrub is the violet willow, Salix daphnoides which has a beautiful grey bloom on its stems.
As well as shrubs with coloured stems the heather garden is often at its best in winter. It can be enhanced with a magnificent specimen birch tree Betula jaquemontia with pure white bark in a central position within a drift of gold and crimson heather, Calluna vulgaris Beoley Gold and Beoley Crimson. All of these plants are enhanced with the first cold evenings and a bit of frost.
For those in a more frivolous mood in need of the perfect small specimen tree, I recommend the Japanese maple Acer palmatum Sangokaku and although it is not cheap, it will not disappoint. After the dazzling red autumn leaves fall off the bright wine red stems are brilliant in sunshine.
At the end of March the shrubs will start to grow, so now is the time to prune them back to a stool just above ground level to encourage the growth of strong young stems that have the brightest colour. However I do not prune back the Kerria or Leycesteria. These get a light pruning after flowering by removing some older shoots back to decent fresh young growth.
Although the coloured stems have been pruned and the early spring bulbs are finished, it is still possible to use this border for a further show of summer flowering scented lilies. These are quite tall and grow through the shrubs into the light to flower.
In autumn apply a mulch of compost after all the leaves have fallen off.
Wee jobs to do this week
As potatoes arrive place them in a warm light place to allow them to start chitting. A favourite is an old egg container with the potatoes placed rose end up.
Place a mulch of rotted compost or manure around fruit bushes to conserve moisture in dry spells in summer and keep weeds down.
This is the latest time to complete grape vine pruning. They are normally grown in greenhouses as upright rods spaced about 12 to 18 inches apart with all growth pruned back to one bud.
There is still time to take hardwood cuttings of many deciduous hardwood shrubs and fruit bushes such as blackcurrants and gooseberries about nine inches long and lined out in a row spaced about four to six inches apart. They will be fine in open ground or a cold frame.