Hah—Bumhug! Good to know all that Xmas excess is over for another year and yet we still have some of the coldest weeks of the winter to endure. Couldn’t have planned it better myself.
Fireside gardening is the order of the day as, unless you are mad enough to be employed in horticulture, not many ‘hobby’ gardeners will feel the need to brave the great outdoors when it’s cold, often wet, and relatively gloomy.
I reckon most gardens, even those belonging to those with only slight horticultural leanings, have a rose or two. A lot of myth has grown up around roses, like a cult of personality surrounding flesh and blood ‘legends’, which complicates matters somewhat when it comes to caring for them.
At the end of the day they are merely woody shrubs, like any other woody shrub in the garden. Intense hybridising, selection and man-made intervention has created roses fitting into a variety of roles from the most vigorous, tree-smothering, rambler (step forward ‘Rambling Rector’) to the tiniest, designed for pots, ‘patio roses’ like ‘Carefree Days’ or ‘Red Rascal’.
I tend to do my rose pruning, on dry days, from now until bud break, around March or April. The aim is to keep the rose forever youthful; the annual prune is a ‘chemical peel’ and a major prune, on a rose that’s really showing its age, is the horticultural equivalent of a full-on ‘facelift’.
Keeping a balance of old and new growth, while removing any dead stems, faded flowers and weak twigs, is key. Keeping just a fraction of dormant buds, which is why the pruning is done in the cold winter months, forces the rose to concentrate on fewer, but stronger, new shoots and correspondingly bigger and better blooms.
The complications arise with the different styles of rose that exist because the pruning technique will, obviously, change depending on whether your victim is a bush type, ground-cover (these aren’t generally pruned) or climber / rambler / scrambler. I think common sense is your best bet here as most written advice, including my own, just comes across as rules and ‘tick-boxes’. These seldom match up with the rose lined up in your sights, secateurs poised for “the first cut”…!
Bushes need to be pruned back to a framework of branches with ‘air’ around them (you’ll get the hang of this the more you prune out and the bolder you become). A very vigorous specimen may react with increased vigour if pruned really hard, which is the temptation, so only cut back by a third or so rather than the two-thirds which less vigorous, i.e. smaller, specimens need.
NB—you can never make a very vigorous rose stay small by pruning. When planting roses ‘anew’ choose them according to how big their catalogue descriptions suggest they’ll get then, having taken a large pinch of salt, err on the side of caution.
For roses of a climbing persuasion, ideally trained onto a framework of wires or trellis, keeping a structure of ‘arching’ stems, from which the blooms will erupt in the summer, is the aim. This means that they mustn’t be shortened before the winter as it’s the nice, new, long stems, thrown up after flowering, which become the future flower bearers. Cut out the oldest ‘structural’ stems and train in a new, freshly grown, replacement now, while the rose is denuded, so you can see what you are doing.
You may also find ‘suckers’ at the base of the plant and these should be pulled off, not cut, from as far down as you can get. These suckers originate from the rose stock, which the ornamental variety is grafted onto, and they are identified by their different growth habit and flower type. If left unchecked they will eventually usurp the ‘delicate’ variety and replace it with a ‘wild’ one.
While you are out and about pruning your roses, and any other structural element made visible due to the lack of leaves, it’s worth considering what else is around at this time of year.
In bloom now is Iris unguicularis, used to be I. stylosa or vice versa, which likes a poor soil in a south facing position and, given those conditions, produces a profusion of large, bluish-purple, blooms from late autumn to early spring. It can get untidy with age so be brutal about removing the old leaves as soon as they wither. The green, strap-like, leaves are not unattractive in a supporting role to the main show.
No garden is complete without a Hamamelis (Witch Hazel) or three. There are many varieties, some flower as early as December while others don’t really get going until February, so January should be peak time, whatever the state of the season. The spidery flowers, on nude stems, are not that showy but their scent is exquisite. For this reason it’s best to select them in flower, use the online ‘RHS PlantFinder’ to find the closest nursery, with the biggest selection, so you can compare as many as possible scent by scent.
Of course, not everyone perceives scent in the same way. A pleasant aroma to one person may be ‘medicinal’ or ‘harsh’ to another. From memory my favourite flowers belong to ‘Jelena’, with orange bracts, or ‘Arnold Promise’, for longer, pale yellow, spidery blooms but the best scent, for my money, lies in the original species – Hamamelis mollis.
Bark and stem effects are at their most noticeable when the garden is reduced to its bare bones. Exploiting them amidst a strong ensemble of evergreens keeps the interest going even in the absence of blooms. Scented, winter flowering, evergreens have double impact; Sarcococca, Mahonia and Elaeagnus are chief amongst these.
If all else fails then January is a good month just to look back on 2016 and reflect upon the triumphs and tragedies. You can learn from your mistakes and build on your horticultural victories to make 2017 your best gardening year yet. It’s not for nothing that ‘Janus’ is depicted with two heads! Happy New Year.