The Red-Barked Dogwood (Cornus alba elegantissima) brings light and movement to any garden, with its upright, graceful stems clothed in variegated leaves (each has broad white margins surrounding a mottled grey-green centre). It's an excellent choice for a garden burdened with too many unexciting, plain green shrubs that flower briefly and then sulk for the rest of the year. If you can give it a dark background as a counterpoint, it shows up even better, and makes a striking contrast with purple-leaved shrubs.
If you let it grow unchecked it will form an open, arching shrub 10ft high and wide. But you must be brutal with it and, in early spring each year, cut its branches hard back to within a few inches on the ground. As its name implies, this dogwood has red bark, but it dulls with age. This annual coppicing is designed to furnish the plant with fresh, new growth - smooth, glossy and bright red. After the autumn leaf fall these stems will give colour in the winter garden.
Many shrubs make ideal hosts for climbers and the Dogwood is no exception. It makes the perfect support - a natural trellis - for a summer-flowering clematis. The familiar Clematis jackmanii would be a good choice. Plant it beneath or behind its host where its roots will enjoy the shade and its tendrils will pull it through the branches of the dogwood to flower in the sun. From mid-summer to early autumn this vigorous climber will produce velvety, purple-blue flowers five inches across. Against the pale, variegated dogwood leaves these flowers look darker than ever. A stunning contrast.
Pruning is child's play. Cut back all stems to 6in above ground level at the same time you savage the dogwood.
Beneath these two plants, smother the ground with Geranium macrorrhizum album, a quickly-spreading, herbaceous plant with strongly aromatic, rounded, sticky leaves and white spring flowers. Happy in sun or shade, it keeps its leaves throughout the winter, but from autumn onwards they will burnish with tints of red beneath the flaming dogwood stems.
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