Have you noticed how some trees and shrubs become more interesting in late autumn and winter? As the leaves fall way their colourful stems and beautiful bark are revealed, bringing colour and texture to the garden. They may be seen in all their glory in large public gardens, but their qualities can be used in the smallest gardens, if you choose and manage them wisely.
Take Acer griseum for example. Commonly called the paperbark maple, it has wonderful peeling cinnamon bark. Its stem is well displayed throughout the year because its branches form a light compact head. The neat leaves colour brilliantly in autumn. It is slow to grow and you can plant right up to the stem, making it an ideal choice for the smaller garden, however you need to be patient.
Prunus serrula gives a much more instant effect. It’s shining mahogany bark peels away leaving paper-like curls hanging in the breeze. It shines and glows like varnished wood in the low light of winter. In spring there is a fleeting display of white blossom and through summer a thin canopy of narrow leaves. It is not too big for the smaller garden and lends itself to use as part of a planting scheme. I have it rising through Cotoneaster franchetii. I love the orange berries with the mahogany bark.
Many birches have wonderful bark which is always most visible in winter. The Himalayan birch, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii is a big tree when mature, so give it space. Its size can be restricted by growing it as a multi-stem, in other words several stems growing from ground level. It is also a good idea to thin out the tree by removing any lower and crossing shoots as the tree grows. This keeps the tree more open allowing light and rain to pass through to plants beneath. This must be done when the tree is in leaf; cutting in winter makes the tree ‘bleed’. When planting a tree in a small space train it to go up, not out. A big mistake often made is to cut out the top to reduce the height. This just makes the head of the tree denser restricting light and rainfall.
I am a great fan of dogwoods grown for their winter stems, many also have the benefit of rich autumn colour. One of the best known is the red-barked dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’. This does reach 1.5m (5ft) in a year. But you cut it right down to a few centimetres above ground level in winter to encourage vigorous upright wands of rich red in winter. It looks great against a dark background, especially if you underplant it with a ground covering evergreen. Smaller and perhaps more interesting is the bloodtwig dogwood Cornus sanguinea. The variety ‘Midwinter Fire’ is deservedly the most popular for its vivid flame winter stems. The light green leaves turn rich gold and orange in autumn before they fall. Again it is important to prune hard to just a few centimetres in early spring to get vigorous growth and the best colour.
Willows are some of the fastest growing trees and shrubs. They are usually regarded as subjects for waterside planting and gardeners are afraid of the strength and invasive nature of their roots. However Salix alba ‘Britzensis’, with its golden-orange winter stems can be the right choice for anyone dealing with wet or waterlogged soil. If it is pruned back to the same point every year in early spring it produces straight wands with narrow leaves, silvery on the reverse. It is attractive through summer when stirred by the breeze. If you have a large pond it stunning when reflected in water. For a smaller garden plant Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter fire’ in the same way. Want to learn more about growing shrubs and trees for winter interest? Join me on one of my online courses at MyGardenSchool. See you in class. Follow @AndyMcIndoe on twitter