Growbag Blog

Willows: Infuriating fad or firm favourites?


‘Very pretty’, ‘beautiful’, ‘lovely’, all totally over-the-top hyperboles used by Laura and Elaine  in our video to describe a few dun-coloured stems in Laura’s garden. Really? 

Willows and dogwoods seem to be the ‘in’ thing for horticultural types to be excited about in winter. I don’t understand why they get so enthused by these featureless spikes just because they’re green or red. Graffiti is colourful but generally not popular. 

I can only imagine gardening contractors sold the idea of dogwoods to cash-strapped councils as a way to keep roundabouts looking tidy for six months of the year (nine in Scotland) and the fad has spread.

(I’m exempting Louise’s choice of willow in her Great Plants this Month because of its lip-smackingly  delicious, fat, red buds.)

Hopefully when the girls are over this phase they’ll  show more enthusiasm for properly pretty winter shrubs such as wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’); witchhazel (Hamamelis) or Viburnum bodnantense – but they’re probably too common to win favour with the girls who can be slightly ‘up themselves’ horticulturally.  

Viburnum – how can Laura not prefer this to some dull old stems?

They’ll come back down to earth – just as people fled back to the vastly superior taste of irn bru after an embarrassing mid-life ‘fad’ for kale juice (OK, that was me).


Caroline obviously got out of bed the wrong side today. Creating a satisfying winter garden is a complex exercise requiring a balance of flower power, scent, colour and structure; by consigning coloured stems to Room 101 Caroline has effectively just chucked out 50% of the available palette.

Intelligently pruned and positioned (which is maybe where Caroline is going wrong…) willows and dogwoods reliably provide uplifting swathes of colour reserving their best performance just as other garden lightweights are looking at their tatty worst.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going and as frost and torrential rain batter trendy grasses and phormiums to a soggy mess these bad boys just glow even more brightly with vigour and rude health, a bit like having your garden invaded by SAS storm troopers, or the Duchess of York.

But positioning is paramount; they must be able to catch the low winter sunlight, and if you are also able to provide an evergreen backdrop then you can create horticultural nirvana – witness the serendipitous positioning of Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’  in front of my kitchen window, backlit by sun and framed against box and yew hedging (feature pic).

Pruning is also vital; we, or rather my husband Tim (remember my judicious Christmas gift to him of a new pruning saw) will take back each willow wand to the base in late winter, Elaine who, as regular readers of this blog are now aware, takes a much more gung ho approach, plans simply to shear everything in sight to the ground with a chainsaw….


Frankly, what IS the point of fannying around with a snip here and a snip there for something as rugged as a willow? Rev up the motor, get the job done and move on, sisters.  

And if it wasn’t for all those handy municipal bushes, where on earth can we all shove all our old irn bru cans? – waste-paper bins appear to be so last-century on the roundabouts and roadsides round here. 

There is a bit of something in what Caroline says, though – these cornuses and willows are ….well…pretty dull in the spring, and the summer, and the autumn, so I reckon you need a decent-sized garden before you can justify these babies for the sake of a few pretty-coloured stems in the January sunshine.

There are other bad boys that can look quite amazing in a great big knock-out winter garden like Saville’s or Hillier’s: the white-washed bramble, for instance – Rubus cockburnianus – which resembles a startling heap of ghostly spaghetti in winter, but it will spread and spread and spread….it’s a bramble, for heaven’s sake! What did you expect?!

Rubus phoenocolasius – its furry steam are making you feel warmer already aren’t they?

And there’s another rather rampant winter beauty, Japanese Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) which has enchanting, thick arching stems covered in red ‘fur’ – extraordinary where I grow it, backlit by a low sun as Laura suggests.  

But this is no one-hit wonder like Laura’s pampered pruned perfections; it has a second moment of real stardom at the end of July when it starts producing handfuls of sticky, sweet, little red berries, a few every day. And they are just perfect to float in a sexy cocktail at the end of a long day’s chainsawing, I find.

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By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

4 replies on “Willows: Infuriating fad or firm favourites?”

I know Alan! Caroline here. My sisters may know more than me about practical gardening but I feel looks, wit and charm all add to the success of one’s garden and this is why they get so jealous of me I think! 🙂

I am with you Elaine on this one. So many wonderful cornus especially Sibirica and Mid winter fire add some sarcocca for evergreen and scent and plenty of hellebores and one cant help smiling whatever the weather and of course a few snowdrops to add to the mix!

Hi Cleone, Elaine here. Yes, it is easy to feel hemmed in and uninspired during the depths of winter, but having a few hardy treasures out there can raise the spirits hugely on your daily trip round the garden, can’t they! I have Sarcococca by the front door, and my lovely Daphne bholua is knocking out perfume like nobody’s business in the back garden, while the sleet slants down. So grateful for their welcome contribution to the bleak scene.

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