Gardening Gardening 2021

Gardening – December 2021 – Helen Robins

Roseland Online, December 2021

Winter colour. At a time when the weather is not conducive to spending hours in the garden, it’s tempting to think we don’t need colour to look at.  Trust me, a few well-placed trees or shrubs will lift your spirits no end, and enable you to bring arrangements into the house.

When we think about colour in the garden, we often think about flowers, but in the winter, these are harder to come by. And much of the winter flower that is available is white, and while that is lovely (albeit not technically a colour), lets think a little more about stems, leaves, and bark.

Lets start with stems. There are several shrubs which come into their own once their leaves have dropped and the cooler days are with us.

The first group is the cornus alba, sanguinea and sericea, or flowering dogwood family. Not to be be confused with the cornus florida group which tend to be small to large trees, and hail from North America, the dogwoods come from Siberia and North China principally and come into their own in cold weather. They tend to be shrubs which sprout vigorously from the stool each year if cut back hard, although they can also be developed as small pollarded trees.

The most remarkable thing about them is their coloured stems which are fundamentally in 2 palettes: the green of the cornus sericea Flaviramera, and the orange to dark red verging on black on the cornus varieties. C. sanguinea Midwinter Fire has stems of vibrant flame colours, C alba sibirica is bright red, and C Kesselringii is the darkest red.

../../../../Pictures/Photos%20Library.photoslibrary/resources/proxies/derivatives/12/00/12ba/UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_12ba.jpg C sericea Flaviramera with Carex Amazon Mist

../../../../Pictures/Photos%20Library.photoslibrary/resources/proxies/derivatives/12/00/12c0/UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_12c0.jpg C alba sibirica with hedera (ivy) variegata


The cornuses look great when mixed with each other or with other plants which contrast (grasses, heathers, evergreen sedges) and show their best colour when cut back hard in spring. Grow in full sun more maximum colour effect, but dont let theme dry out in the summer. Mostly, they will tolerate quite damp feet.

If you’ve got more room, or are looking for a really striking hedge, think about the various coloured willows (Salix) instead. Generally more vigorous than cornus, they also benefit from being cut back hard each year so can be kept in check that way. Willow stems are pliable enough to be  the most useful material in making willow wreaths, and combining the colours can give the most striking results, even without any other decoration. Of course, there are the twisted willows which look fabulously structural once the leaves have dropped.  Salix like permanently damp feet to thrive so great for a damp shady area.

Another shrub which looks good this time of year is the white-stemmed or ghost bramble, rubus cockburnianus or rubus thibetanus. A relative of our native bramble, this one is more decorative in that its stems are white and ghostly in the winter once all its leaves have dropped, and it does have a charming little pink flower in late spring and summer. Again, it is fresh growth that shows the best colour so cut back hard in the spring for best effect, and put it next to some that will set it off – maybe black grass, or I have seen it to great effect next to dark purple pittosporum Tom Thumb in Pinetum Parks fabulous winter garden. Take a wander there; it is most striking. Rubus is tolerant of all soil types, including poor stony soil but a word of caution. It is vigorous so give it plenty of room, and be prepared to dig some up now and again as it suckers into a large clump. Guess who’ll be digging a load up this year, slacker that I am….