We’re so lucky here at Farley Hill Place Gardens to have lots of evergreen shrubs and colourful stems that I can cut to use in my floristry and flower arrangements. And the most useful of these are the different forms of dogwood – both Cornus alba ‘Spaethii’ and C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ – that we inherited when we came here. Their colourful winter stems stand out beautifully as soon as the leaves fall in the autumn, but after the cold of winter their hues have intensified so that by now they are positively glowing. I love being able to see them from the house, set amidst the bare stems of other deciduous shrubs and the evergreens. I have to be careful when cutting them for winter arrangements that I don’t spoil their shape.
But this is the month when I can let rip with the secateurs, as now is the time to cut them hard back, as low down as possible, so that all their energy goes into producing young, vigorous stems from the base. It is these that will have the best colour next winter: the old, woody stems tend to be brown, dull and far less appealing. Cutting them back now means that I can use the stems in amongst vases of daffs, or in spring arrangements like those we’ll be making in my Easter Flower Workshops that are coming up in late March.
While I’m at it, I’ll be saving some of the thicker stems – about pencil thickness – to use as hardwood cutting that will grow into new plants. Cut these stems about 20-25cm (8-10in.) long, just above a bud at the top and just below a bud at the base. Then, choosing a place that you can almost forget about, push the cuttings into the ground (the right way up!) to leave just 5cm (2in.) sticking out of the soil. They should be well rooted by autumn when you can transplant them to their final positions.
My new plants will come in handy as this year we’ve decided to make a couple of new coloured-stem borders in the walled garden. And with this in mind, we’ve bought some bare root plants from Buckingham Nurseries, 10 each of each of the following: Cornus alba ‘Westonbirt’ (the reddest stemmed variety), C. alba ‘Kesselringii’ (with black-red stems), C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ (the golden stemmed dogwood), and Salix alba ‘Chermesina’ (the scarlet willow). They’ll be planted in blocks in the new borders to make an eye-catching feature where we can enjoy them from the kitchen window in winter. And with more plants, I can afford to cut a few more stems in the dormant season without spoiling the overall look.
Because they are cut back hard every year to get the most colourful stems, any of these cornus and willows are suitable even for small gardens where they’ll glow through the winter and provide the essential addition to any vase of flowers. So, rather than a leaf, why not take a ‘stem’ out of my book and plant some of these versatile shrubs. Your garden will look all the better for it!