Saturday 24 March 2018

Gardening with Diarmuid Gavin: stormy striptease

As the bad weather clears the last of the leaves from branches, some striking winter bark can be revealed

Winter wonderland: White birch in winter
Winter wonderland: White birch in winter
Don't plant during periods of extreme frost.

Diarmuid Gavin

I visited a friend's house last weekend to give advice on some tree planting he is planning for the winter. We have been developing his garden for some years now on an occasional basis. Seeing a long-term project beginning to come together and reach the potential you dreamed of can be very rewarding.

The initial planting, done four years ago, is beginning to mature and it looks wonderful. We looked out from the kitchen window on a blustery December day. Storm Desmond had ensured that all the autumnal golden leaves on his grove of white barked birch were cleared. The trees were as naked as Amy Schumer in the Pirelli calendar. And in their starkness they looked beautiful, their straight white stems were upright and gleaming, strong architectural forms. With the change of seasons they had uncovered another aspect of interest.

Winter reveals all - it takes away the outer layers and shows that a tree's bark can be as enticing and entertaining as its foliage or flower.

As I take my walks through the sometimes boggy soils of the Wicklow hills, the sculptural skeletons of wind-pruned trees and shrubs reveal some rather intoxicating forms. If you could purchase these plants in a posh European nursery you would pay a small fortune for stems full of character.

Alongside my friend's group of Himalayan white birch, which other tree and shrub species show off their interesting bark at this time of the year? Not all tree or shrub bark is interesting. Some species fade into the background as soon as they loose their cloaks. But, if you choose carefully you can add another layer of interest to a well-planned plot.

The Tibetan cherry tree (Prunus serrula) has a glossy coppery brown bark that is revealed when the old bark has peeled off - it's so shiny that it invites you to reach out and touch.

Paper Bark Maple (Acer griseum) has chestnut-coloured bark that gradually flakes away revealing a stunning deep orange-to-red bark underneath. Another tree with bark that shines a shade of cinnamon red is the Cyprus strawberry tree (Arbutus x andrachnoides).

Sometimes it is the twisted silhouette of a bare stem that draws the eye - Corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana Tortuosa) and Twisted hazel (Corylus contorta) are both beloved of florists for their spiralling, curling stems. The Red dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) and yellow stemmed cornus don't draw much attention to themselves during the year but following their annual striptease will add very vibrant colour to the winter garden.

The Chilean myrtle (Luma apiculata) has lovely orange and cinnamon bark and is a good evergreen seaside choice as it is resistant to salt. Before the winter strips it bare, crush its leaves to release a spicy fragrance.

Top tips for Dormant season planting

The trees and shrubs mentioned above can be purchased and planted during the dormant season. In effect, that means the plants are dug up when they're leafless during winter and their roots are shaken free of soil. They must be kept cool, with their roots packed in moist material, such as damp hessian or sawdust.

In general, bare-root plants are easy to store and ship in good condition which can make them relatively good value as there's no need for potting in the nursery, and they can be packed tightly together for transporting.

Mail-order nurseries selling bare-root trees online can have wider selections than local nurseries.

It's best to purchase the plants as young as possible. That way they will establish quicker, overtaking more mature specimens within three or four years. Make sure that you never let the roots dry out. Prepare well before they're delivered by making sure you have sheltered space for storage if they are not being put in the ground straight away, along with good quality compost and slow-release fertiliser to ensure a good start.

Ensure that you plant to where there is a soil mark on stem - never higher or lower. As we know this can be a windy time of the year, so remember to use stake and tree ties. Put the stake in the planting hole before the tree so you do not pierce the roots. Choose tree ties which are expandable so they don't strangle the tree. Draw up a programme to observe and loosen these ties over the years.

Don't plant during periods of extreme frost as soil can crack and lift and then roots will be exposed. You want them nicely bedded in for spring growth.

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