This morning I cut down the coppiced willow in the ditch bed. I've been putting it off, since the whole point of the willow is to enjoy its bare, egg yolk yellow stems in the winter, but the buds will be swelling and the leaves breaking any day now. The best colour is on the young shoots, besides which left to its own devices it grows far too big, sticking out over the lawn and shading the other plants in the bed. I left the smallest and thinnest stems intact, those of no more than pencil thickness (maybe a fat pencil) to soften the effect and give it a head start with at least some leaves to get it going. There is a theory that taking off all the growth every year weakens the plant and that you can just remove half or a third of the oldest stems each year, but by the end of year two or three they are pretty massive.
The willow loves sun. We have periodically allowed the trees growing along the ditch to grow out over the ditch bed, shading the back of the bed quite heavily. The willow did not think much of this at all, and the back section of the coppice stool died in protest. The part of the stool facing the lawn continues to grow, with the result that the shrub must have crept a foot towards the light since I planted it out of its two or three litre pot quite a few years ago.
Then I tackled the coloured stem dogwoods by the oil tank, a mixture of Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' and Cornus stolonifera 'Flaviramea', which I see from the RHS website I should now call Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea'. It was stonlonifera when I planted it in 2001, and the name is descriptive because once it gets going it runs at the root. The young shoots are an attractive shade of bright pistachio green. The old ones are dingy brown, and slightly prone to dieback, at least in our dry soil. It's worth cutting out some of the old, dull growth every so often to encourage the new, besides which it will get fairly tall if left untrimmed, fully eight feet, and it was growing up into the crown of a Malus transitoria and through a white flowered Japanese quince. I like my plants to mingle informally up to a point, but the Cornus has no manners, and I should like to be able to see the flowers of the Chaenomeles, while the crab apple would probably prefer its own space.
'Midwinter Fire' has slim young twigs in a vivid shade of orange-red, very pretty in winter. You need to plant them where they get a reasonable amount of sun for the full colour to develop. As the stems age they fade to a nondescript buff and the shrub needs pruning every so often to encourage the production of fresh growth and to make sure that it is produced at a sensible height and not somewhere above your head. My plants are beginning to run at the root after a slow start. Last year they were late coming into leaf and the leaves did not look awfully well, while quite a few young stems turned black and died before the plants pulled themselves together and began to grow properly. After that they were fine for the rest of the season, though it is generally worth giving plants a quick tidy after the leaves have fallen and trimming out any dead twigs so that the effect of the red glow is not diluted.
Side branches of Cornus are produced in opposite pairs, and on Cornus sanguinea they are held at right angles to the main stem, and are thin and flexible. Designed, in fact, to slip around behind people's glasses and scratch their eyes. My recent accident happened while I was cutting down the leaves of the hellebores growing under the 'Midwinter Fire', and this time round I did not go anywhere near them except when I was wearing my safety glasses. That's a third reason to chop them down now. I need to apply Strulch to that bed, and it will be much easier to get at the soil and I shall be much less likely to poke myself in the eye again if I'm not crawling through a thicket of Cornus twigs.