GINA PARKINSON picks out a shrub to bring colour and cover to the garden this autumn and winter

DARK or purple-leafed plants are a useful ornamental addition to the garden, their deep colours giving drama to a corner and contrasting with greens and yellows from other foliage.

Cotinus, or smoke bush, is a wonderful example, a deciduous shrub with purple-leafed varieties that look beautiful grown with other shrubs or, if space permits, allowed to grow into a specimen tree.

We are lucky enough to have inherited a very large cotinus when we moved to our current garden.

It must be 15-feet high, I had never seen one grown this large before and it is a truly wonderful specimen in summer with dark leaves and misty plumes of flowers that look, from a distance, like smoke.

As the summer progresses to autumn, the leaves lighten to reds and oranges, looking almost translucent when the low sun shines through, a lovely sight especially in the early morning when they are bejewelled with dew that catches the light.

Then the foliage falls and the ramshackle skeleton of the shrub remains against a clear blue sky one day, dark clouds the next.

Not having grown many shrubs or trees before moving to this garden I am pretty useless at identifying the ones we now have, but luckily the smoke bush still had a label on it, embedded in the base of the trunk.

Cotinus ‘Grace’ is a popular variety, the result of a cross between the huge American smoke bush Cotinus obovatus which can grow 30-metres tall and the smaller European species Cotinus coggygria which will still get to six metres when mature.

The new spring foliage of ‘Grace’ is green to begin with, eventually taking on shades of deep red and purple which form a perfect backdrop for the clouds of summer flowers.

Cotinus prefers to be in a sunny spot and in well-drained soil and is fairly trouble-free.

Mildew, which can be caused by dryness at the roots in spring, may be a problem especially for newlyplanted specimens so regular, copious watering may be necessary for the first year or so in dry weather.

Once the plant has established a good root system this will no longer be needed.


In the veg patch

WORK has died down on the veg patch and November sees the last of the tidying up before winter sets in and the ground is too hard or wet to dig.

If the lure of the garden is too difficult to resist it is a good time to cut back rhubarb, the stems and leaves will almost certainly have flopped and be looking very unappetising.

Take back all these stems either by carefully pulling them up or, if they have become too decomposed for this, cutting at the base.

Leave any buds that have begun to emerge, they may grow but are more likely to have come to a standstill and be biding their time for next season.

Loosen the earth around the rhubarb clumps pulling up any weeds and removing other debris, then mulch with a layer of compost, the thicker the better.

Rhubarb is a greedy plant that loves rich, moist soil, so any work done now will be of benefit next spring when growth starts again.


Weekend catch-up

Hedges can be lightly tidied in autumn to keep them neat until spring. Just cut back any unruly stems and check for debris that has fallen into the body of the hedge. The base of the hedge can also be cleared and forked over, but I tend to leave this until spring since the dead leaves and bits of twigs make an ideal space for small creatures to hibernate.


TV and radio


8am, BBC Radio Humberside, The Great Outdoors.With Blair Jacobs and Doug Stewart.

9am, BBC Radio Leeds, Tim Crowther and Joe Maiden.

2pm, BBC R4, Gardeners’ Question Time. A postbag edition this week from Sparsholt, Hampshire where Anne Swithinbank, Christine Walkden, Matthew Wilson and chairman Eric Robson answer listeners queries sent in by post. (Repeated from Friday).


3pm, BBC R4, Gardeners’ Question Time. Panellists Chris Beardshaw, Pippa Greenwood and Matthew Wilson join chairman Eric Robson in Shropshire where they help gardeners from Bishop’s Castle with their horticultural problems. (Repeated on Sunday at 2pm).


7am, BBC Radio York, Julia Booth. Presenter Julia Booth and plant expert Nigel Harrison hold their weekly plant surgery.