There are so many things to love about this time of year: spring bulbs with their intricate shapes and shining colours, seedlings exploding from pots all over the house, warmer weather and light evenings for playing with plants in the potting shed after the kids are in bed. But despite these advantages, there is always a tinge of sadness when it’s finally time to say goodbye to the winter stalwarts of the garden – my dogwoods and their stunning stems.
Putting off the inevitable…
Traditional advice is to prune dogwood at the end of February in warmer areas of the country and the beginning of March in other areas. I am, I admit, late this year. I could blame my tardiness on being insanely busy, what with growing plants for the school summer fete, volunteering in two community gardens, working part-time and looking after two lively, beautiful, exhausting children over the holidays. But really it’s because I can’t bear to say goodbye to my favourite plants until next winter. I pruned the two Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ at the back of the garden, the one in the pot at the front and the three Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ in the gravel garden in March. (They should be pruned from the third or fourth spring when they are growing strongly, with less vigorous specimens like ‘Midwinter Fire’ only pruned every other year if preferred. Cut the stems back to 5-7.5cm from ground level, or to the previous year’s stubs in order to coppice the plant and encourage next year’s crop of bright stems.)
Then I looked at the fabulous orange display from my oldest ‘Midwinter Fire’ by the writer’s bench and the cheerful green stems of the Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ in the main flowerbed and instantly found more important jobs to do. Indeed, the RHS advice page has recently acknowledged that ‘to allow maximum time to enjoy the colourful stems’ people are furtively pruning from late March to mid April up and down the country without having a negative impact on plants.
But today I finally accepted that the belated chop couldn’t be ignored any longer. Fortunately the plum blossom, daffodils and fritillaries are now looking fabulous near the bench and the tulips are blooming in the flowerbed; spring is moving on. In an attempt to make the best of a bad situation I struck cuttings of all three varieties. I’m not sure what I’ll do with twenty baby dogwood plants next year, but I’ll work that part out later. Probably give them to friends and family (those who haven’t already reached Cornus saturation point).
My cornus addiction began with trips to stunning gardens like the Anglesey Abbey winter garden. There they take centre stage, along with willows (Salix), witch hazel (Hamamelis) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). Once the vibrant winter colour is gone they remain quiet allowing other plants to shine around them, but they are waiting to take centre stage when the garden falls quiet between autumn and spring. As well as their aesthetic appeal, dogwood has many uses in the garden. I use the prunings for colourful peasticks or to weave as a low barrier in the willow den. They are easy to grow as cuttings as long as the soil remains moist, in fact I’ve used the stems in flower arrangements only to find they’ve grown roots in the water and can then be carefully potted up. I think there’s a space in every garden for a dogwood. Good job really, considering the number I propagate each year!