The Casual Gardener: Dogwood's blazing bark lights up the winter garden

Few things brighten up a winter garden quite like the bark of the red dogwood…

The red bark of Cornus alba 'Sibirica'

EVEN today, if you really want to put heart into your home in winter, a real fire is the way to do it. The primitive energy of the flames takes us back to a time when warmth wasn't available at the flick of a switch – and we just can't help but be drawn to it. It's the same in the garden. A winter garden with vivid reds and oranges will be rewarding whatever the weather, but especially on those fabulous days when the sun angles in low over the trees and rooftops.

Wonderful allies in creating a beautiful winter garden come from the Cornus family. Two great choices of Cornus or dogwood for winter stem colour are Cornus alba, including ‘Sibirica' and Cornus sanguinea (common dogwood), including ‘Winter Flame'. However hard the weather, plants like Cornus sanguinea or Cornus alba will still perform. In fact, the winter stems of these Cornus are enjoying their moment of glory right now, which makes them a real asset when most of your plants are having a rest.

Dogwoods are a great choice for a winter-interest specimen shrub in the garden. They are ideal plants for a focal point in a place that catches the sun, or in a sunny border. They can also work well in a waterside garden, by a pond or stream, where reflection can double ornamental impact on still days.

Contrasting underplanting will emphasise stem colour. One suggestion that can work well is to combine Cornus with hellebores, for example Helleborus foetidus. The bright stems of the Cornus stand out against the apple-green flowers of the hellebore without obscuring them. Ericas and heathers, especially white or golden flowered varieties also make great choices for underplanting.

Tolerant of a range of soils, these Cornus varieties do best in moist, well drained conditions. You'll get the most impact from the coloured stems if they're planted in a full sun position. In terms of maintenance, dogwoods need to be pruned hard (within two or three buds of the base) in early spring to guarantee vivid new shoots in the coming winter. When left to grow, they'll achieve a height and spread of up to 3m. They are fully hardy.

Winter colour as offered by these Cornus varieties is an absolute delight. Reliable and resilient, you can be sure of bright shoots. But the benefits don't stop with stems. Following the attractive visual effects of winter, white flowers appear along the stems in May, followed by mid or dark green, oval shaped leaves. These are present throughout the summer and turn fiery-red in autumn, when berries (inedible) also develop, black, white or blue tinged, depending on variety

The key to getting a strong winter display from your dogwood is pruning, which should be carried out in early spring. Pruning the stems back hard almost to ground level will encourage more new shoots to emerge, and these will grow 3-4 feet over spring and summer. It is this fresh growth which provides the most vibrant colour the following winter.

Dogwoods are tolerant of most soils and prefer an open sunny site, which is where their stems will look their most upright and brightest come winter.

If you have plenty of space to play with consider planting a red-stemmed variety alongside a yellow for a rhubarb and custard effect. Keep them in matching groups rather than mixing them up.

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