Growbag Blog

Winter colour courts controversy


I was so sure ornamental grasses and classy seedheads were the ‘it’ girls of winter these days, that I fully splashed out on them – stipas, calamagrostis, pennisetum …you name it, I’ve got it. Good heavens, I’m only one unwise purchase away from pampas grass.

You can, then, imagine my dismay this week when Elaine and Laura instead, got wildly excited about their willows (Salix) and dogwoods (Cornus) again.

I’m not a huge fan. I don’t understand why they get so enthused by these featureless spikes just because they’re green or red. Graffiti is colourful but not widely popular. 

And in my opinion dogwoods aren’t even all that successful at cheering up a winter roundabout!

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

If it’s colour you want there are some properly pretty winter shrubs such as wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’); witchhazel (Hamamelis) or Viburnum bodnantense – but they’re probably too mainstream 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).

But who knows, by the end of this post, they might have me begging for some cornus cuttings!


What Caroline has failed to appreciate here is that creating a satisfying winter garden is a complex exercise requiring a balance of flower power, scent, colour and structure.

Intelligently pruned and positioned (which is maybe where Caroline is going wrong…) willows and dogwoods reliably provide uplifting swathes of colour to set off other winter flowering bulbs and shrubs. Just look at what they manage to achieve at RHS Wisley, in our feature picture this week.

Willows (Salix) are much more robust than dogwoods and if you go for this genus to provide your winter colour then you really must commit to an annual pruning regime. Left to their own devices they can soon become socking great trees whose thirsty lifestyle can see their roots infiltrate water courses and drains. You can either stool them to the ground each spring, or pollard them back to a main stem. I know Elaine is fairly gung ho and shears them all off with a chainsaw each spring.

Salix alba var. britenzsis looks wonderful as a tall pollard

Dogwoods (Cornus) need a bit more consideration. Some are robust enough to have the same treatment as willows and will grow back each year with vigorous strong wands. Others, and in particular the rightly popular Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’, whose narrower stems form more of a birds nest effect definitely conjuring up the tongues of flame its name suggests, need gentler treatment. An annual prune weakens these shrubs too much so it’s best to cut back or coppice only every second or third spring, or in rotation around a clump.

But positioning is paramount; they must be able to catch the low winter sunlight, and if you are also able to provide an evergreen or buff backdrop then you can create horticultural nirvana –

Cornus ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’
If she was minded to volunteer for her local council Caroline could have those roundabout dogwoods looking as good as this one – ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’

Mainly for Caroline’s benefit, I’ve made a short video on these recommendations and the link is at the end.


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.

Which camp are you in – are coloured winter stems dire or delightful? Let us know in the comments below.

Watch Laura explain to Caroline how she should be maintaining her willows and dogwoods in this short video

This deciduous and woody shrub is very accommodating and adaptable, it’s also extremely hardy and is tolerant of almost any aspect or soil. No wonder it’s Louise Sims’ Great Plant this Month! Click on the box below to find out what it is.

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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.

8 replies on “Winter colour courts controversy”

While most of my garden consists of my favourite herbaceous plants, I realised I needed winter colour to balance out the seasons. I have a cornus Midwinter Fire in front of a standard juniper. The cornus catches the sun and is stunning all winter. I love it. In summer it is a dull green shrub, but I don’t need it in summer!

I chose Midwinter Fire as my garden is a decent size but not huge. It has been in about four years and has spread a little, but I’m not concerned it will grow too large.

Hello Barbara, what a good choice and a great position for your Midwinter Fire.
Mine has been very well-behaved over many years with just a tendency to throw out a few suckers but these are easily dug out and can be potted up to give away. This cultivar is so well-named isn’t it! Best wishes Laura

Caroline, I also have a garden in Scotland (south Flisk, Bleoo Craigs Fife) but more to the point a wee Jack Russel who is the spitting image of yours!

Aww Julia, that was Crunchie who was actually bred by Laura. She’s sadly no longer with us having reached a very ripe old age. Laura still has her niece – the last of quite a dynasty. Aren’t Jack Russels just the biggest characters! Im sure yours has just the best life in Fife. Have a wonderful Sunday ❤️

I think that winter coloured shrubs have their place in mixed borders but I am not a fan of a large mass of them, in blocks. It would not be feasible anyway in my small garden. The Winter Border at Saughton Park in Edinburgh, managed by the Caley Society Volunteers, has a good mix of winter flowering herbaceous plants, e.g. Ericas and Hellebores – and shrubs, some flowering, e.g. Viburnums, some with coloured stems, e.g. Dogwoods with a couple of stunning white barked birches.

Sally how absolutely lovely to hear from you.It’s Caroline here and since moving back to the Highlands, one thing I really miss is the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society. I have no doubt the garden at Saughton is looking absolutely wonderful these days, I’d really love to revisit, those combinations sound fantastic. Wishing you all the very best ❤️

Although we only have a small garden we have a couple of Cornus Kesselringii ( my absolute favourite..those black stems!) Baton Rouge Anny’s Winter Orange…. Magic Flame (supposed to be superior to AWO!) and have just purchased Cornus Alba Miracle interesting foliage on this one…..we shall see!

Ooh, Angela, we can see that you really know your dogwoods! Your garden must look fab when most of ours are still looking drabbily wintery. C. Kesselringii is indeed very striking – and probably easier to manage than black-stemmed bamboos – so I am going to seek that one out. Good luck with Alba Miracle – I see it has bright rusty-red foliage, so it could be a good way of avoiding the rather dull ‘blobby’ nature of most dogwoods through the summer. All the best, Elaine

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