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Credit: Michael Polinder

Shrubs and trees create the bones of your garden and can create lovely focal points in the cold winter months.

With the flowering season at an end and long, grey days to look forward to, where is a gardener to find consolation if not in the silhouettes of trees, shrubs and perennial seed-heads? Garden designers call the first two of these the “bones” of the garden – those structural elements clothed in warmer months by leaves and blossoms.

Evergreen and deciduous trees

Evergreen trees come into their own at this time of year, but in a cottage garden such as mine they are non-existent. Surrounded by open fields, I have deliberately chosen deciduous trees to complement the landscape, and derive my winter pleasure from the patterns of their bare branches. The best, and oldest, of these is a corkscrew hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta,’ now after 10 years a Medusa’s head of coiling stems 2.4 metres high and wide. A close second is the contorted dragon-claw willow, Salix babylonica var. pekinensis ‘Tortuosa,’ whose branches spiral gracefully skywards to form a taller, looser silhouette. The hazel drops seedlings every year, but these always grow into straight-stemmed specimens. To get the contorted form, it is necessary to buy a grafted plant. The willow, however, like all of its family, can be easily grown from a cutting stuck into damp ground. Other small trees show off interesting bark, like the peeling cinnamon skin of a paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and the polished mahogany trunk of Prunus serrula, a cherry grown more for this feature than its insignificant spring flowers.

Lavender year-round

Best of all for all-season interest is my lavender patch, a large rectangle that I have divided into four with Roman pavers and filled with rows of ordinary English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). In summer, the plants fill out their allotted quadrants with masses of bee-filled purple bloom, but when the last flowers are fading, I clip them back severely into neat, rounded hummocks. Within a few weeks, new growth sprouts, turning gradually from green to grey as the days grow colder. The geometry is satisfying, especially on frosty mornings when the whole mosaic sparkles in the sun’s rays. In mid-spring, as new growth begins, I clip the lavender lightly again to thicken the clumps a little more and to correct any wayward stems that I missed the first time around. Apart from its visual effect, clipping is also a practical manoeuver that strengthens the individual bushes as well as prolonging their life. Without an annual manicure, a lavender bush can very quickly become a flattened, woody mass, hollow in the centre where branches have collapsed outward under their own weight or under the pressure of snow. Once this has happened, it is almost impossible to restore the plant to a compact, leafy shape again. If you begin pruning when the bushes are young, a pair of hedge clippers will easily cut through the thin stalks, but older plants that have developed tough, woody stems will need to be attacked with long-handled loppers. At this stage, it is important to avoid cutting too low. Make sure that you can see fresh, green shoots on the remaining piece of stem before making the cut. Otherwise, the plant may not branch out satisfactorily with the desired amount of new growth. I chose English lavender because it is the hardiest strain, but it became clear to me when the plants flowered that they were grown from seed rather than cuttings since there is considerable variety in the size and colour of the bracts, not to mention the vigour of individual plants. To ensure a uniform colour, it would be wiser to order a particular variety such as ‘Munstead’ or the dark-violet ‘Hidcote.’ Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) leans more to the pink side of the colour range, and has tight, almost square flower heads bearing two charming little petals like rabbit ears at their tips, but this strain is inclined to sprawl rather than mound up, and the leaves are so needle-thin that it makes a less satisfactory bulk in winter. Nor is it as hardy as the English variety. Gardeners in the warmest parts of British Columbia have the luxury of choosing French lavender (Lavandula dentata), whose broader, greyer leaves have attractive scalloped edges. ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ has particularly soft, feathery foliage, but is too tender for all but zone 8 or warmer gardens.

Plants for freezing regions

Where winter temperatures consistently fall below zero, you will need to substitute other plants for lavender. Shrubby cinquefoils (Potentilla fruticosa) are one possibility, being hardy to zone 2 and offering a range of flower colour in summer. Unlike lavender, they are deciduous, but their dense, wiry branches are a pleasant cinnamon-brown, and under snow cover, clipped plants would have appropriately rounded shapes. Bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) is equally hardy, and an adventurous gardener might want to try grooming it in this way. As attractive as it is in winter, it also contributes pretty pink flowers to the summer garden. Christine Allen is a member of the Master Gardeners Association, and teaches courses in the VanDusen Botanical Garden Education program.