Bare naked trees

As I have said many times before, my desire to garden is at the lowest ebb just before Christmas, and jobs not jobbed before the end of November can usually wait until the end of February, as I do not possess any vines or figs in need of early pruning.he sharp frosts at the end of November turned autumn into winter within a week, blasting the last leaves from the trees.

There not being a lot to look at in my garden, I am more aware of trees in the landscape than at any other time of year. Being in a region of clean air, we have many shapely oaks in Somerset, whereas in the Midlands many have grown ‘stag-headed’, with whole branches dying back. Since the large elms were killed off with Dutch Elm Disease, oaks dominate the landscape near Donyatt.

The elms have not entirely disappeared. They still form substantial sections of boundary hedges, their russet yearling growth entirely straight and branched like a fish bone. They make excellent pea sticks and I cut some on a friend’s farm for use in spring. Elms that are not regularly flailed in hedges and allowed to grow will get to about 6 inches in diameter before dying of elm disease. Elm was traditionally used for making chair seats, being resistant to splitting when the chair legs were wedged into the holes in the seat. Not much chance of finding an elm large enough for seats now.

Horse chestnuts have a distinctive outline, their branches sweeping first downwards then up at the ends. Balsam poplars are easy to spot, tall and narrow in habit often grown as windbreaks, planted close together. The very narrow Lombardy poplar is a windbreak tree that was much planted 50 or so years. There are rows of poplars near West Lambrook orchards. It has fallen out of favour in recent years, being too big for domestic use and very vigorous with a root system that can sucker enthusiastically if you cut the tree down.

Hazels can be coppiced at this time of year. If I had a large garden I would certainly want a nut grove of filberts and cobs in the fond hope that I would beat the squirrels to some of the nuts in September. Coppicing them in rotation, I would also have a ready supply of yearling switches to weave into Christmas wreath bases, 2 year old pea sticks and 3 year old growth for sweet pea and runner bean canes. They can be used in many ways to support herbaceous plants on the border, and you will see hazel put to this use at Barrington Court and Forde Abbey. It looks much nicer than manufactured supports and sustainable too.

There are too many trees to mention worth looking at in winter. Somerset is not naturally a coniferous county. There are a few plantations of black pine and a few Scots pines on top of Herne Hill. I do not plant many ornamental conifers in the gardens I design, as they are squat and blobby when young and impossible to prune when they get too big. However, yew is the most useful conifer in the garden, most tolerant of shade but not of waterlogged soil, and can be pruned into hedges and topiary repeatedly for centuries.

I shall make a plea to those of you possessing a garden that can be measured in acres rather than metres. Please plant a Cedar of Lebanon. Many landowners did over 200 years ago and these trees are now dying out. The rest of you please plant an apple or plum on a semi-dwarfing rootstock. Somerset has less than the national average acreage of trees and we could all do something about it. It need not be an expensive task. I bought a 2 year old bare root Victoria plum at a supermarket 2 winters ago for £8.50 and it is now 8 feet tall and doing very well.