Planning for winter interest…

Winter tends to be thought of as a time when gardens go to sleep. Trees and shrubs lose their leaves, perennials die back to ground level, and bulbs are dormant below ground. Evergreens may keep their leaves all year round, but they don’t do anything interesting in the winter, do they? And as for flowers, you’re unlikely to see any until the snowdrops pop up in early spring. Well, actually…

Flowers in Winter
With careful planning, it’s possible to have plants in flower all the way through what we refer to as ‘the dormant season’. There are a range of shrubs that flower in winter, and surprisingly, many of them are deciduous. Flowers tend to be smaller and less showy than summer blooms, but they stand out more against bare branches. What’s more, winter flowers tend to be strongly scented. Witch hazel (Hamamelis), a graceful deciduous shrub, produces striking, spidery flowers in yellows, oranges or reds in January and February. Winter sweet (Chimonanthus) has fragrant yellow flowers from December to February. And winter honeysuckle (Lonicera) has highly scented white flowers from December to March.

Viburnum x bodnantense makes a large, bushy shrub with attractive mid-green leaves. It has clusters of fragrant pink flowers intermittently throughout the winter.

Winter flowering evergreen shrubs include Mahonia; the bright yellow flowers of which are followed by dark berries, daphne and sweet box. All are high scented.

The appeal of bark & stems
Trees with decorative bark make striking features in the winter, when their colours and textures are more visible.

Many varieties of Dogwoods (Cornus) have richly coloured stems in yellow, orange, red or black. In the summer, these are hidden, but when the leaves drop off, they shine out and make a striking feature in the garden. Many willows (Salix) also have brightly coloured stems (willows are known as large trees, but there are varieties that are much smaller). For both willows and dogwoods, cutting some, or all of the stems back to ground level in spring enhances the effect (it’s the new growth that carries the colour).

Colouful stems of dogwoods; Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, C. alba ‘Sibirica’, & C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’

And then there are trees and shrubs that produce attractive berries, many of which can last well into the winter.

Malus ‘Comtesse de Paris’ (Crab apple), Rosa rugosa, & Ilex auquifolium ‘Argentia Marginata’ (Holly)

In winter, the bare branches of trees and shrubs make for interesting structures in their own right, even without attractive flowers, berries or bark. Evergreens have a more solid presence, and those that have been shaped into topiary decorate the winter garden with their architectural shapes.

Topiary at the National Trust garden Erddig, North Wales

Autumn is the perfect time to plant new shrubs and trees, because the soil is moist, and still warm enough to allow roots to establish. What’s more, many are available ‘bare-rooted’ at a much lower price than potted specimens. Deciduous bare-rooted trees and shrubs can be planted any time throughout the autumn and winter.

At ground level, flowers are scarce in the winter, and those plants that do produce them, such as hellebores, reticulata irises and cyclamen, are valuable.

Winters in the UK are long, wet and cold, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy our gardens. And it won’t be long before bulbs come into flower, starting early on with snowdrops and crocus, then the various types of daffodil, and on to the tulips; when we’ll know that summer is almost here.

Text, title photo, and that of Erddig ©Strelitzia Garden Design. All other photos are from the on-line nursery Crocus

Up the Garden Path

This is the back garden as it was mid December last year, when we moved in, laid mostly to lawn, and dominated by a straight central path cutting the space in two.

We’ve got a working plan now. It isn’t quite finalised, but I’m confident it’s close enough that we can prepare the ground where the trees will go before it’s too late to get them in. Trees are generally much cheaper when bought bare rooted, but this can only be done in the dormant season, and they have to be planted within a few days of being lifted out of the ground. The path had to go. Here it is after I was half way through taking it out (taken 25th Feb):

The bed on the left is also going, so I’ve been taking the plants out and moving them to the nursery bed.

Work has been progressing smoothly, as and when I can fit it in. As you can see here, the chickens have wasted no time in annexing the bare earth as a dust bath:

This was the state of play as of 7th March, with all of the concrete and gravel removed, and the paving slabs left loose for the time being, so we have something to walk on:

I had hoped the slabs and gravel were laid on membrane over compacted soil, but I was to be disappointed. It’s been a long time since the old pick axe has seen that much action, and I’m left with a huge amount of rubble that will need to be removed at some point (I may be able to use some of it under paths and patios elsewhere).

You may just have noticed we’ve planted some trees in the grass. The design I came up with has a mini orchard, set with six fruit trees – 2 apples, 2 pears, a plum and a damson. I’m aiming to turn the grass into wild flower meadow, with a mown path curving through the trees to a patio at the end, under the large birch tree. In total so far we’ve planted 9 trees, and 100 hedging plants. And there will be more to come.

I’ll sign off, for now, with this month’s centrefold; the lovely Lola, sprawled on a bed. Calm yourselves…

Text & Images © Graham Wright 2020

Winter Pruning of Fruit Trees

With the exception of Prunus species such as cherry, which are susceptible to silver leaf disease, free standing fruit trees are best pruned during the dormant season. You can do it anytime from late October through to early March, but I prefer to wait until the tree is fully settled into dormancy, and then get it done well before the buds begin to swell. Anytime during December and January is fine. Ideally, pick a day that isn’t too frosty or wet. Make sure your secateurs, loppers and saws are sharp and clean. I like to sterilise mine with diluted Jeyes fluid before and after, to avoid spreading any disease from one plant to another.

I’ve just pruned my quince tree (Cydonia oblonga ‘Vranja’). Quince fruits are about the size of, and a similar shape to pears. They have a downy coating, and a wonderful fragrance. They can be added to apple pies or crumbles to give them more flavour, or made into membrillo – quince paste – that is eaten with cheese. Apparently. But I know what you’re thinking – ‘who does he think he is; Mary Berry?’ Back to the pruning then, and the first question to ask is ‘why prune?’

The patient before surgery…


…not massively congested, but could benefit from some shaping

Quince makes quite a small tree – one of the reasons I chose it for my small garden – and although this specimen has grown fast during it’s four years in the garden, I’m happy for it to put on more height. I didn’t want to restrict it’s growth (more on that later) so I was pruning to improve the tree’s shape and to promote it’s health. Trees put out shoots in all directions, which can lead to them becoming quite congested. There were a number of shoots that were crossing each other. This is bad, because when branches rub together, they wound each other, and wounds can be entry points for disease. So those shoots had to go – I cut them back to their source.

There were other shoots growing in towards the centre of the tree. What you should be aiming for is an open shape. This lets light into the centre of the tree, which helps the fruit ripen, and allows for a good airflow through the canopy, which helps to prevent diseases. This was particularly relevant to me, as my quince suffered a bad bout of Quince leaf blight last year (Pulling Weeds Post 8/9/2017). So I cut most of the shoots that were growing inwards back to their source, opening up the canopy, and ensuring that all branches had some space around them.

Incidentally, when pruning fruit trees, you need to have an eye on the future. It isn’t quite so important for quince, which don’t tend to produce a huge harvest, but pears, and apples in particular, can be laden down with fruit, and it’s easy to underestimate just how much it will weigh down the branches. So when pruning in winter you need to think about the effect of the fruit, and whether branches will be bent down so far that they rest on the branch below, and prune to try and avoid this happening.

The next thing to consider is what’s generally known as ‘the three D’s’ – identify and cut out any wood that has signs of disease (such as canker), or is dead, or dying.

Finally, I pruned some of the rather spindly top shoots. How much you take off depends how much you want them to grow – perversely, the more you cut off, the more growth you stimulate. I really just tipped them to take off the thin, straggly ends – they should produce new, thicker shoots from the next remaining bud. Getting up to reach the top shoots can be difficult. My ladders weren’t tall enough to get me there, but I’ve found that you can grab the branch lower down and bend it down (gently – don’t risk snapping it!) until you can reach the tip.
The finished result – not a huge difference, but as I’ve said, it didn’t need that much pruning, and my general rule is that any tree that obviously looks as if it’s just been pruned is a tree that’s been pruned clumsily

My quince didn’t need a great deal of pruning, but for older trees, and particularly ones that haven’t been pruned for some years, it can be a different story. You may have to cut back large branches that are growing into the centre of the tree. If you need to reduce the size of the tree, I think it’s best to do it by cutting out some of the higher, leading branches back to their source, to maintain a natural shape, rather than lopping all of the branches to the height you want, leaving ugly stumps, which isn’t a good look. You should be aiming to shape a tree, not round it over. Bear in mind too, that if you cut fruit trees back too hard, they can respond by throwing out lots of long, straight shoots (known as water shoots) which won’t bear fruit, and which really spoil the shape of the tree. If a tree needs serious renovation to check it’s growth, then it’s best to do this gradually, over a number of seasons.
The prunings – as you can see, I didn’t need to remove a large quantity of material

One more thing to bear in mind – be careful up those ladders.

There was a young chap called Vince,
Who attempted to prune a quince.
But he dropped his saw, then fell off the ladder,
When he picked himself up you could see that he had a
Wound that would make anyone wince.

…Happy pruning!

Words and pictures copyright Graham Wright 2018

If Trees Could Talk…

We’re not long into September, and I’d like to think it’s still summer, if only just. But it seems that many of the trees think otherwise. I can’t help feeling a little antagonistic towards them. It’s as if they’re trying to deprive me of what little summer is left; as if they somehow know there isn’t any more good weather to come, so they might as well get on with the autumn business of dropping their leaves. I have an instinctive sense that trees are wise, but in this case it may be less about being in touch with the rhythm of the seasons, and more about giving up regardless. If trees could talk, they’d be saying ‘we’ve had enough!’

My Quince Tree (Cydonia oblonga ‘Vranja’) has suffered a lot this year. In spring, its freshly emerged leaves were ripped to shreds by strong winds. Likewise its second growth. It’s lived through prolonged drought, excessive rain, vastly fluctuating temperatures, and now a long period of dull, humid weather. And now it’s losing its leaves at an alarming rate. Continue reading