Sky's the limit with Peter Dowdall

Sunlight illuminating the bark of a Tibetan cherry tree.

Observing the colourful winter garden is an uplifting experience, says Peter Dowdal.

One of the most aptly named plants that I know is Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’.

It’s like the veritable burning bush during the autumn and winter as it shows off, first its autumn finery with the changing leaf colour and then afterwards, in the winter, its stems, a mixture of orange, copper, red and yellow as they set the garden alight with seasonal colour.

These winter stemmed Cornus are a much under-rated and overlooked group of plants in general. Indeed, the winter season itself is often unthought of in terms of providing interest and colour in the garden and I would venture that this is foolishness in the extreme.

Think for a moment about how important the garden is to our mental well-being; every flower we see during January, from the nodding primroses to the more showman-like Hellebores, can’t but lift the spirits somewhat when we see them.

Colour is so important to our frame of mind and there is so much of it in the summer garden, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the only season worth focusing on but not so, the winter months can provide just as much beauty.

That beauty is different to what we see during the spring and summer and even the autumn with all its fanfare.

No, in the winter we are looking at those more subtle effects and nuances such as foliage — evergreen and variegations in leaf colour come into their own during this season — texture, the frosted stems of Miscanthus for example, and winter stem effect such as the Cornus or, as they are more commonly referred to, dogwoods.

There are many other genera that will provide wonderful stem effect in the winter garden such as Salix species (willow) and even some ornamental brambles, Rubus.

Stems don’t have to be dramatically coloured to be of interest, the contorted, twisted stems of Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ add a real touch of drama and mystique which is simply invisible when in full leaf.

Bark is another feature which we pay more attention to during the winter months and this is perhaps because it is much more visible now as it isn’t obscured by the furnishings of foliage.

The sunlight too, I think, has a lot to do with admiring winter beauty.

As the sun is lower in our skies in the Northern Hemisphere now, the rays reflect and illuminate so differently than when it is directly above us and as a result dramatic tree barks are in full sun as opposed to being shaded by the sun shining down on top of the canopy, creating a shaded area of which the trunk and thus bark, are in the centre.

Some to keep an eye out for are the snakeskin-type bark of Acer capillipes and A. davidii, the peeling bark of A.griseum and one of my personal favourites (aren’t they all?) Prunus serrula, the Mahogany Barked or Tibetan cherry tree.

There again we don’t need to look for the most obscure or sought-after variety, the beauty that is present in birch trees and alders which are all about us will also take some beating.

If left unchecked, C. ‘Midwinter Fire’ can reach as high as 2.5m and nearly as wide, but if it is left to get to that size then the result is an untidy and largely unremarkable shrub.

For the wonderful winter effect is provided by vibrant new stem growth each year and if the shrub isn’t pruned annually, then that growth becomes less vibrant and more tired and dull looking.

The colour comes during the first year of a stem’s growth. If those stems are left to remain on the shrub they will darken with each year and the result is a not unattractive but certainly not an impressive plant, stealing the limelight during the dark winter months.

Cornus grown for winter stem effect should be pruned before the end of February to ensure that the drama becomes an annual winter event.

Pruning it cannot be simpler. I am inclined to use that most technical of terms “hack it back” but, of course, I shouldn’t, I should instead use the correct language and say that these shrubs should be coppiced to a low stool.

This is also referred to as “stooling”. Prune back the previous year’s stems to just above a node anywhere from 10-20cm from ground level.

This will ensure that the magic will happen once more next winter.

The same root system is drawing up the same amount of moisture and nutrients from the soil but instead of transporting it throughout a 2.5m plant it now only has to travel 10-20cm before bursting into new vibrant life.

Doing one's share

Now is the season to be thinking seeds and of future seasons. Irish Seed Savers Association is one of Ireland’s leading conservation charities.

It grows, saves and shares rare varieties of heirloom vegetable seeds and Irish heritage apple trees.

Its Annual Seed Share takes place this year on Sunday, March 3, from 12pm to 4pm in Scariff, Co Clare, at the Organic Seed Gardens, Heritage Orchards and Native Woodland trails and everyone is invited.

If you have any spare seeds or, better yet, saved your own, bring them with you to share and swap with other growers, gardening and community groups.

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