As the stormy autumn winds blow, it can be a bleak time of year in the garden, with the last of the leaves being stripped from the trees leaving them exposed and bare.
For me, it is a magical unveiling, as the architectural form of a tree or shrub is revealed, and with a little planning and careful selection this seasonal transformation can be celebrated.
There are many species with beautifully coloured and characterful bark that will lift the garden in winter and create a stunning seasonal spectacle.
And with the low winter sunlight the bold structural forms of colourful branches can shine as brightly as any summer flower border.
Perhaps the best known genus grown for their fantastic array of colourful stems are the Dogwoods.
Cornus flaviramea provides the perfect partner with its striking contrast of lime-yellow stems.Cornus alba 'Sibirica' is the favourite for red stems, providing rich scarlet displays once its leaves have fallen.
Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ blazes with golden yellows fading to coral oranges and up into rich scarlet at its tips.
And Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ offers a deep purple, almost black stem that looks fantastic when planted in front of other red and yellow cultivars.
These shrubs are pruned every year to within a few buds above ground level, to maintain the intensity of their stem colours. This means that they never get too large, usually around 1.5-2.5 meters.
They are tough and easy to grow and provide a riot of unrivalled colour through beds and borders, or through woodland plantings. They love moist soil, so they are perfect for planting along river banks and pond sides where their flame-like stems can be reflected to wonderful effect.
The birches, are a family of trees with extremely attractive bark.
Their beautiful ghostly white forms catch the winter sun, so that they gleam through dark woods and shine against blue skies.
Betula utilis jacquemontii the Himalayan Birch, is a gorgeous specimen with a smooth, brilliant white bark delicately embellished with soft amber streaks.
It has a neat upright habit and will grow to between 15-20 meters, making it suitable for medium sized gardens. If you are lucky enough to have the space they look especially wonderful when planted en-masse, a forest of white silhouettes.
Betula papyrifera, the Paper Birch tree, is another stunning cultivar. After around 5 years the trees white bark matures and begins to peel back in large scrolls revealing its coral undersides.
It's another lovely neat tree with a conical habit, growing to around 25 meters.
Both trees will grow in a range of sites although they are happiest in full sun and a damp soil.
Although normally associated with their amazing autumn leaf colour there are many Acers with fantastic barks to brighten the winter garden.
It has a branched spreading habit and will reach a height of around 8-10 meters eventually, although it can be pruned to keep it small and compact. This means it can be grown in all but the smallest of gardens. Acer griseum, The Paperbark Maple is a definite favourite. Its deep cinnamon bark peels back in small flakes that shimmer in the breeze, and as the light shines through them they glow with intense copper.
Acer davidii ‘George Forrest’ is known as a snakebark maple. Its emerald green branches are marked with attractive white painterly strokes that wind their way down the branches like cascades of droplets.
It is a spreading tree that will eventually grow to 8-12 meters. Its loose lofty canopy doesn't cast much shade, meaning it can be underplanted.
Both Acers will tolerate pretty much any moist but well drained soil, in sun or partial shade.
Another popular choice is Prunus serrula 'Tibetica' this gorgeous little tree has all the attributes that you expect from an ornamental cherry – the blossom, fruit and fine autumn colours. But as the older bark matures it begins to peel away in strips to reveal a layer of glowing mahogany beneath that shimmers and shines in the sunshine like polished bronze.
At an eventual height of 8-12 meters it makes a wonderful specimen tree for a small garden where it deserves all the attention.
Although it will grow in pretty much any moderately fertile soil it's best grown in full sun to take advantage of that gleaming bark.
The London Plane, is frequently used in urban environments due to its high tolerance of pollution. It can also be pruned very hard on a regular basis, and its pollarded form lining city streets is a common sight.
It has lovely pale grey-green bark that sheds large flat plates revealing a striking camouflage patterning of olives, browns, and golds.
If pruned regularly it can be kept at a manageable size, and makes a rather grand specimen for a traditional city garden. However, care must be taken not to plant it too close to buildings due to its vigorous root system.
Unpruned, this huge tree can reach an epic size of up to 35 meters, with a rounded canopy of twisting branches. In this untampered form it's a magnificent choice for planting in sequence in parkland or along a driveway.
It will grow in any moist, well drained soil and although it tolerates some shade prefers to be positioned in full sun.
Planting for autumn colour
When planting trees and shrubs its important to make sure the planting hole is well prepared and enriched with plenty of organic matter in the form of compost or well rotted manure.
Always use Rootgrow mycorrhizal fungi to give them a good head start.
Firm them in gently and water thoroughly.
Trees will need support in the form of a tree stake, angled towards the prevailing wind.
Keep them weed free and well watered in dry weather until they become established. They will benefit from a feed with a general purpose fertiliser and mulch with well rotted manure or compost in spring.
So why not embrace the season and make the most of all that beautiful bark this winter!