Wave those magic wands

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Mark Grif­fiths Mark Grif­fiths is edi­tor of the New Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety Dic­tio­nary of Gar­den­ing

FOR cen­turies, we’ve grown dog­woods (Cor­nus) and wil­lows (Salix) for their colour­ful win­ter-bare stems and branches, but it’s only in this cen­tury that ex­ten­sive ar­eas have been de­voted to them and they have been used en masse as the main ma­te­ri­als of a new style of win­ter plant­ing, notably at the Bress­ing­ham Gar­dens in Norfolk, the Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Botanic Gar­den, the RHS Gar­den Wis­ley and the Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Parks.

It’s an as­ton­ish­ingly fe­lic­i­tous devel­op­ment. Such plant­ings are a joy to cre­ate and easy to main­tain. As for be­hold­ing and be­ing among them, even on be­nighted days, their in­can­des­cent branches put the win­ter blues to rout.

When pruned, most of the plants in­volved are sim­i­lar in form: a dense thicket of rod-like stems aris­ing straight from the ground or a short woody base. How­ever, they’re var­ied enough in colour to gen­er­ate vivid con­trasts. In this cat­e­gory, the best dog­woods are Cor­nus alba Sibir­ica and Ba­ton Rouge (seal­ing-wax red), C. alba Kes­sel­ringii (ma­roon-black) and C. sericea Flavi­ramea (prim­rose to mus­tard yel­low).

Although these can be used solo, mixed plant­ings are spec­tac­u­lar in which dif­fer­ing groups or drifts, each of one cul­ti­var, are jux­ta­posed. For sit­ing be­side or be­hind them, the best wil­lows are Salix alba Britzen­sis (brass stem bases, cinnabar to scar­let tips), S. alba var. vitel­lina (bril­liant pale gold), S. daph­noides (aubergine bloomed with sil­ver) and S. x rubens Bas­for­diana (glow­ing tawny yel­low suf­fused with ver­mil­ion).

A few of the new win­ter gar­den’s greatest or­na­ments don’t con­form to this tall, rod-like habit, be­ing more bushy by na­ture and twiggy in their beauty. Cor­nus Mid­win­ter Fire is the finest of sev­eral sim­i­lar C. san­guinea cul­ti­vars in which the leaf­less stems and branches pass from pale apri­cot at their bases through or­angey am­ber to flame at their tips. In Salix far­ge­sii, the bare branch sum­mits are glossy dark choco­late and the bud sheaths (soon to split, re­veal­ing sil­ver catkins) blood red to ruby.

Both of these con­sort hap­pily with their larger cousins in the fore­ground of mass plant­ings, but they’re also in­dis­pens­able in more con­fined schemes. I re­mem­ber the freez­ing day at Foggy Bot­tom in Norfolk when Adrian Bloom first showed me Cor­nus Mid­win­ter Fire, which he’d put in a large ter­ra­cotta pot. ‘It’s a new shrub we’re of­fer­ing this year,’ he ex­plained, ‘I thought I’d plant it up with a few things.’

Around it in the con­tainer, tufts of Galan­thus S. Arnott poked through a turf of Ophio­pogon planis­ca­pus Ni­grescens and hov­ered over its glossy black, rib­bon-like leaves in a bal­let of bril­liant white. I’ve since seen pots of this per­fectly cho­sen trio warm many a chill ter­race.

Favourite lo­ca­tions for larger win­ter gar­dens are the shores of lakes and large ponds, where the wil­lows and dog­woods will ex­ult in the damp, even saturated, ground. How­ever, they’ll suc­ceed any­where, given full sun and soil that doesn’t dry out for long, and cre­at­ing them nowhere near wa­ter in­creases the choice of com­pan­ion plants and the de­sign pos­si­bil­i­ties. For ex­am­ple, in the dark months, few other gar­den plea­sures can equal walk­ing a gravel path be­tween two deep bor­ders brim­ming with bril­liant wands.

To pre­serve their looks, you’ll need to per­pet­u­ate their youth and that en­tails prun­ing them once spring has prop­erly ar­rived and the new growth is break­ing. With cul­ti­vars of C. san­guinea, al­low a per­ma­nent, 2ft to 3ft-tall frame­work of stems to form and merely cut back any branches that are start­ing to look dull and barky. The same goes for S. far­ge­sii.

For the other dog­woods and wil­lows, some­thing more rad­i­cal is in or­der: the not-so del­i­cate art of stool­ing. Here, all of the stems are cut down to within a few inches of the ground or of the short stump (the stool) that de­vel­ops over the years.

As jobs go, it seems dras­tic, es­pe­cially if the shrubs are still look­ing colour­ful, but a crop of new shoots will soon ap­pear and the cut wands or with­ies can be put to uses from arched edg­ing for bor­ders to full-blown bas­ketry.

Whether to stool an­nu­ally or ev­ery other year will de­pend on the specimen’s vigour and your en­er­gies. Give new shrubs a cou­ple of years to es­tab­lish them­selves be­fore you be­gin their prun­ing regime.

As they’re find­ing their feet, the most en­joy­able part of the ex­er­cise be­gins: choos­ing and ar­rang­ing their com­pan­ions, among them sil­ver-caned bram­bles (Rubus cock­bur­ni­anus and R. thi­betanus), helle­bores, Pul­monaria, spring vetch, snow­drops, aconites, scil­las, ferns, woodrushes, sedges, ground­cover ivies and ever­green shrubs such as Daphne bholua and Sar­co­cocca. And so win­ter be­comes won­drous, wel­come.

Their in­can­des­cent branches put the win­ter blues to rout

Next week Christ­mas bulbs

Cor­nus Mid­win­ter Fire in the Win­ter Gar­den, Bress­ing­ham, Norfolk

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