I've rather fallen in love with willows these last few weeks. At a time when few things are flowering, the colour and form of the various varieties of willows is really very welcome.
We started our Willow collection with a cutting from a tree in the garden of Tabitha's lovely school in Thornford. It's always covered in silvery 'pussies' in winter and the stems are a deep burgundy with a hint of purple, the tips covered in a soft waxy grey bloom. The furry catkins provide protection for the pollen bearing stamens and provide a welcome nectar source for early flying bees on any warm day.
Taking willow cuttings couldn't be easier. Any healthy stem thicker than a pencil, between one and six foot long, inserted firmly in good moist soil in winter and protected from weed competition by a compost mulch or mulch mat, will root very quickly and then grow away at a truly satisfying rate. A great plant to introduce children to gardening, it's almost impossible not to root them, they'll even root upside down!
We've now got around twenty varieties, with all manner of different coloured stems and catkins. To get good straight stems for our bouquets and arrangements, we will either cut last year's growth hard down to the ground, or perhaps chest height, pollarding them to make it easier to harvest the stems. This has the advantage of enhancing the winter colour of the stems, which can be truly stunning in a range of yellows, tans, violets and reds. A fantastic sight in a winter landscape, as shown to perfection in James and Tania Compton's garden, Spilsbury, where Tania has planted a ring of pollarded Salix. Their vibrant red and orange stems blaze in the subdued winter tones of this fascinating garden.
Another wonderful family of shrubs for the cold months is the Cornus, or dogwood. The glowing red stems of Cornus alba Sibirica are well known and lovely but the bright yellow scarlet tipped stems of Cornus Midwinter Fire have my heart, they really catch any bit of winter sunshine and are wonderful to include in a bouquet, or dried flower arrangement.
The many varieties of Eucalyptus that we grow really come into their own in winter. We grow seven species, all from seed and they are really easy. The well known gunnii is the perfect flower arranger's foliage plant but we also grow perriniana, dalrympleana, cinerea, parvifolia, nicholi and rotundifolia. Sown in May, some of these species grow up to six feet in their first year. Once again we will coppice these at ground level, or pollard them at a convenient height each year. By August the stems will hold when cut and provide foliage all Autumn and Winter.
All our foliage shrubs get this treatment, we have Physocarpus for it's deep burgundy leaves, Pittosporum in various forms, all manner of Hollies, Weigela, the fragrant winter Honeysuckles, the spindle bush Euonymus, a whole range of Hypericums, grown for their colourful berries, our Hydrangeas, Rosa rugosa and perhaps my favourite of all, the elegant and shining evergreen, Phillyrea latifolia.
We have a spectacular and very old specimen of this Phillyrea in Sherborne in front of Barton Farm on the A30 at Kitt Hill. This venerable and beautifully glittering tree must be several hundred years old and gives me joy every time I pass it. There is another staggeringly beautiful example in Fifehead Magdalen, which in it's old age has naturally cloud pruned itself into wonderful shape reminiscent of those seen in very old Japanese gardens. It's a very special tree, which seems to compliment fine architecture and I'm surprised that it is not planted more often, I've certainly tried to leave one wherever I have lived.