Cutting back winter stems on Seven AcresThis must be one of horticulture's most colourful jobs - the annual cutting back of Wisley's winter stems.

Tulips with winter stem supportsIn early April, teams of staff, students and volunteers set to work on the garden's many Cornus, Rubus and Salix - mostly concentrated on Seven Acres - cutting them back hard to encourage next year's vibrant displays. 

It takes 25 people two days to finish the task, creating a mountain of bright stems which are then put to various uses: as plant supports such as hoops and wigwams; for chipping into mulch; for sale in the Plant Centre; or for use in willow weaving workshops. Some years, the stems are sent to rehabilitation facilities for use in occupational therapy. 


Why cut back?

 

'Cutting back ensures the best possible colour,' says Herbaceous Ornamental Team Leader Verity Bradbury, who supervises the cutback. 'If you leave them over time you will get thicker, less colourful stems.'

Cutting back Rubus (and even digging out some larger clumps) also helps control layering and spreading, giving more manageable plants. 

Cornus and Salix are cut back to just a couple of buds, while Rubus are cut to about 2.5cm (1in) high. Any dead or badly crossing stems are also removed. 

Verity advises not to prune new winter stem plants too soon - allow them to establish for one or two years first, before getting the secateurs out. 

After cutting back, plants are given a general purpose feed and mulched to lock in moisture. 


Winter stems: Spoilt for choice

 

Seven Acres is home to nearly 30 Cornus, Rubus and Salix species and cultivars, making it a great place to see and compare plants for winter stem colour. 

Assorted Salix stemsMeet some of the highlights:

Salix alba var. vitellina 'Yelverton' AGM positively glows in the sunshine, making a wonderful contrast with neighbouring snowy-white birch bark.

Cornus sanguinea 'Anny's Winter Orange' AGM is so bright it is almost fluorescent.

Cornus alba 'Kesselringii' has darker stems, creating a more dramatic effect. 

Salix hookeriana and Sgracilistyla 'Mount Aso' have the added bonus of attractive catkins. Once cut, the stems can be brought indoors for long-lasting vase displays.  


Getting the best from your winter stems - year round

 

Pruning Cornus 'Midwinter Fire''Winter stem plants are such good value for money,' says Verity. They have such impact, whether grown singly or in groups, and look great from October through to March.' Even then, they keep on giving, making a fresh backdrop to summer-interest plants. 

Verity's tips:

  • Consider planting near a window so you can enjoy your winter stems even when you're not in the garden.

  • Cornus and Salix are probably better suited to the home garden, although Rubus thibetanus AGM and Rubus cockburnianus 'Goldenvale' AGM have more compact habits.

  • When planting, remember to allow space for your plant to fill out in summer. 

  • Don't be worried about cutting back. If feeling anxious, why not pay a visit to Wisley to see the winter stems before and after cutting back?

Cornus Midwinter FireMore advice

 

Find out more about Cornus cultivation, pruning and training with our expert Cornus advice profile. More Cornus advice

Browse the RHS Shop to find the perfect winter stem plants for your garden


 

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