The bark - this aspect of woody plants is rarely the first consideration when buying or planting a tree. However, there are a few kinds that are planted specifically for their beautiful bark. In other cases, it is a delightful bonus. For the garden in winter, when there is so little in the way of decorative colour, the value of tree bark colour is very considerable. Even a few well-chosen and well-placed trees or shrubs can make a big impact.

While there are the ‘stars’ with superb bark colour, it is surprising how many ‘ordinary’ trees also display this beauty, but these are often overlooked or not seen for the valuable asset they possess. Often it is simply a question of becoming aware of a decorative feature of a plant to gain more appreciation and satisfaction. For instance, the silver-grey of ash or young oak trees, or the pale brown of common larch are very attractive, though rarely mentioned in that context. Walnut has a fine grey bole, and beech too, with lots of fine specimens around the country. Wild cherries have handsome brown or silver-grey bark. The Scot’s pine has fine orange-brown bark on its top half — a very distinctive feature that catches the setting sun.

Common trees

Apart from these common trees which make a useful contribution to the beauty of gardens and countryside, there are other kinds that are even more decorative and given more credit as a result. The best known of these is obviously the silver birch, which really comes into its own in winter.

There is a lot of variation between different individual trees, as would be expected from seed-raised plants, and some specimens can have a very plain brownish stem while others are clear white. The variety Betula ‘Jacquemontii’ is specially grown for its outstanding bark colour — it’s foliage or general tree shape is not as attractive as the ordinary silver birch but it does outshine the latter when it comes to trunk colour.

Two other good Chinese birches for bark colour are Betula albosinensis and Betula ermanii. The former has cream to pink to reddish new bark and the latter is fawn to pink. The paperbark maple, Acer griseum, has peeling reddish-brown bark. It is a very pretty small tree, grown mostly for its decorative bark but also for its autumn foliage colour. The mahogany bark cherry, Prunus serrula, has mahogany-red bark with a sheen like a well-polished table.

Many kinds of eucalyptus have beautifully patterned bark, including the cider gum, Eucalyptus gunnii, especially the outstanding snow gum, Eucalyptus niphophila, which has white stems, streaked with grey and brown. The arbutus, or strawberry tree, has good bark, especially the hybrid Arbutus andrachnoides, which has rich reddish bark. The Chilean myrtle, Luma apiculatata, has a remarkable range of colour from white-silver to bright orange, sometimes on the same tree, revealed by peeling patches. The Persian ironwood, Parrotia persica, also has this feature of peeling patches and good colour in shades of brown, pink and grey too.

Many willows have good colour although like most of the trees mentioned, the colour in the case of willows comes from the young stems rather than the trunk. For instance, the white willow, Salix alba, has good orange-yellow bark colour, especially the variety ‘Britzensis’, and Salix babylonica. The weeping willow, has a pale yellow colour in winter. Like the willows, the dogwoods are very popular and widely grown, and they too depend on it for their effect on the massed small stems. The colour is best on young growth, so these shrubs are usually cut back every few years to encourage new growth and to keep the plants to a smaller size, if that is required.


There are several different species of dogwoods, such as Cornus alba, Cornus sanguinea and Cornus stolonifera. Good forms of each of these have been selected. For example, ‘Sibirica’ has bright red stems and ‘Kesselringii’ has dark red-black bark.

There is an attractive kind with red-orange bark called ‘Winter Beauty’ and ‘Flavirimea’ has greenish-yellow stems, which make a lovely contrast to the red kind. The raspberry-relative Rubus cockburnianus has brilliant white stems in winter. It is a strong grower and will make a large clump. It needs to be given space, but that should not be a problem in a rural garden.

These trees and shrubs are normally planted as single specimens. Often they look better as single highlighted trees but they can be grouped too, especially birch. But most kinds should get a prominent position, or at least a position where their colour will be noticed.

This may not mean a central position but simply that when other trees go bare, the beauty of bark is revealed. Most kinds can be planted now and will give great value at the same time of year for decades to come.

Raising a pot off the ground using terracotta pot feet to prevent it being broken by frost.

Fruit and Vegetables

If the soil remains wet, and heavy ground might not dry out until spring, it is best not to trample over it, and digging will have to wait. Fruit tree pruning can be carried out, except on plums. Fruit trees and bushes can be planted when the soil drains a little. In fact, it is useful to dig a couple of test holes to see if the site tends to be waterlogged, which does not suit fruit.

Trees, Shrubs and Roses

Tree planting must be suspended if the ground is very wet. Losses among trees and shrubs planted into water-sodden ground will be increased because of the tendency of wet soil to smear and clump together, denying vital oxygen to the roots. Roses can be tidied up in cold districts, shortened to prevent wind-rocking, and fully pruned in mild areas.


The near-continuous rain of recent weeks has left lawns very soft and effectively has brought the mowing season to a close, at least for now. It can be very damaging to the soil structure of a lawn to walk over its surface when it is wet, but there will be occasional spells of dry weather when the ground will firm up enough to carry out a once-off mowing, even in mid-winter.


Take in tender bulbs in the colder localities. Plant any spring bulbs that were purchased but not planted. If the ground is wet, do not undertake division and re-planting. Many flowers react very badly to being moved into cold, wet ground.

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