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Jan/Feb 2011

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Bark colour in winter, cutting back grasses and getting equipment ready!

In winter, after leaf-fall, with little interest in the garden, is the perfect time to examine the bark of trees and shrubs. On mature specimens of Arbutus andrachne, the Greek strawberry tree, its peeling bark curls back revealing fresh green to cinnamon colours.

One thinks of birch being the whitest of all. My favourite is Betula utilis ‘Trinity College' which was given to me thirty five years ago, and produces copious amounts of peeling tan-coloured bark. Another good tree is the native birch which thrives in bogs, I planted these in Kerry as 60cm seedlings six years ago, they are now over two metres high.

The plane tree has a bark pattern resembling an abstract painting, the muted colours - cream, grey and muddy ochre - are fascinating but it suffers from dieback which is prevalent in the Cork area. Taxodium is a good tree for wet ground and it is fast growing with rich brown coloured bark that is heavily textured. The maple cultivar Acer davidii ‘Serpentine' has silver striations over its trunk and Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki' produced coral pink stems.

Some shrubs and herbaceous plants have equally attractive bark. The straw-coloured bark on Heptacodium miconioides contrasts well against red-stemmed Cornus ‘Westonbirt. Eupatorium purpureum ‘Atropurpureum' still has beetroot-red stems backing winter ericas, while yellow dogwood shelters plum-coloured Helleborus orientalis. During wet periods, I spend my time in the greenhouse pruning the peach tree and vine, and cutting back half-hardy fuchias, both standard and bush shapes, then spraying with liquid copper and cleaning staging and glass.

Here all tender plants are cosseted in aeroboard and bubble wrap. Dahlias, clivias and succulents suffered badly during the last freeze so I dried them out the compost and have them in a frost-free room. Against the south-facing wall of the house are many tender herbaceous plants which have been given a 20cm deep mulch. Tree peonies should thrive here given shelter and a dry root run. My favourites are the enormous orange and red ‘Mme Louis Henri' and ‘Mme Stuart Low', smaller in flower like crushed pink velvet. These are underplanted with snowdrops, recently divided, and purple-flowered spring Cyclamen coum.

Will ericas ever have a comeback? These easy reliable winter flowering plants have been growing for thirty years. One light trim and off they go again. They are great plants to set off purple Daphne mezereum, witch hazels, hellebores and garrya. I missed out last autumn pruning back cotoneasters to the wall. I need to cut some old wood out. A good plant for a north wall, we grow red-flowered Clematis texensis through it for extended interest. In the next month many of our grasses need cutting to the ground: miscanthus, panicum, stipa. When grown in gravel and poor ground I find they colour up better and are less prone to flopping, and are also brilliant in a seaside garden.

Another big job is limb-pruning on mature apple trees and magnolias, and lifting the crown on oaks, beech and Davidia involucrata which I stupidly grew as a multi-stemmed tree, now spreading into a Montezuma pine and a chestnut. After 2010 winter, the pointing on paved areas was badly damaged. I always get garden machinery checked over during January before the mad spring rush. Secateurs and loppers, when sharpened, are always much easier to use and, lastly, a new blade for my telescopic pruner. I'm set up now for 2011!

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