Well, Dear Reader, assuming you’ve come through the ‘Festive Season’ relatively unscathed, January is a month more suited to armchair gardening than ‘full on’, outside in the cold, hairy-chested, tasks. If, like me, you are not as young as you used to be, then rushing outside, on a cold day, launching yourself into strenuous exercise is not to be recommended – a sure way of starting 2018 with pulled muscles or a strained back.
Wrapping up in plenty of layers not only keeps you nice and warm but also offers a degree of protection against the cruel barbs of those pesky beauties; roses. There is constant debate on the best time to tackle rose pruning. In these days of global warming, autumn can be too early as it just encourages soft growth which is then wiped out by later frosts. Leaving pruning until March, or April, may be too late as the sap is rising and the pruning cuts can present a feast of opportunities to disease causing pathogens.Best to prune them now while they are in their deepest winter sleep and impervious to the vicious cuts which you are about to subject them to.
There are loads of different rose ‘types’ but the only factor that you really have to worry about is what role the rose in question needs to perform? With constant hybridising (basically ‘cross-breeding’) every named rose variety, as opposed to a ‘Species’, is a mongrel. Resisting the urge for a ‘Dog Rose’ pun, this means that many fall between neat titles like ‘Shrub’ or ‘Climbing’ rose.
The rose seller and breeder ‘David Austin Roses’ has managed something of a marketing coup with their modern ‘English Roses’ aiming, pretty successfully, to provide old-fashioned form and scent with modern disease resistance, vigour and repeat flowering. Many of their introductions perform different roles depending on how you choose to prune and train them. Many of their laxer ‘shrub’ roses can be used very effectively as ‘climbing’ roses just by altering their pruning regime and giving them a framework to attach them to.
That’s why I tend not to worry about what specific variety I am tackling but more what I want to achieve by pruning it. This is especially useful if I’m tackling an old, often shapeless, rose in a client’s garden where the actual variety name has been lost in the mists of time. There is nothing more satisfying, although it is very time consuming (i.e. expensive), to transform a tangled mess of an old rose, full of death and disease, into an elegantly arching, concisely edited, array of healthy stems just waiting to burst into glorious, summer, blooms.
The reverse of this joy is the complete annoyance, with pent-up frustration, of working in a garden surrounded by roses which have been pruned / trained by a ‘keen owner’ who hasn’t the first idea how to artfully prune a climbing rose to make the most of its flowering potential. I guess that old chestnut ‘Ars est celare artem’ is a pearl cast before swine in that situation. Gardening is, after all, an Art which is equally reliant on a good understanding of Science.
I digress, best get back to some pruning waffle…….With any rose the pruning checklist is to start with removing any dead wood, diseased wood and spindly, non-vigorous, shoots. Dead wood is easy to identify because it is brown, diseased wood is generally brown or yellow, with a mottled appearance, while healthy wood is a shade of green, although many roses have a distinct purplish tinge about them.
Once the dead and dying stems have been cleared out then the oldest stems are the next for the chop. These are harder to spot, until you’ve got your eye in, but they tend to be darker coloured than the younger stems. There are, naturally, more old stems towards the base of the plant than at its top.
Before severing the old wood, have a look along its length to make sure that it isn’t carrying new, vigorous, shoots further up which you need to keep. The aim should always be to remove all the oldest wood, whilst keeping the youngest, to leave a balance of the different ages when you have finished pruning.
Another aim is to keep the centre as open as possible with no crossing branches. That is the ‘ideal’, in fact it’s very difficult to have no crossing branches. Cutting stems so that you always leave an outward facing bud, on the bit that remains, is another laudable, but not always possible, aim. Don’t get hung up on these finer points of pruning, just be aware that they are ‘best practice’.
If you’ve removed all the obvious stems, falling into the categories so far, then you should have shifted the balance towards healthy new growth. On a ‘waist high’ type rose shortening everything back is fine and the more brutal you are, the more it tends to bounce back.
On a rose with long, arching, stems the temptation is to decapitate each ‘unruly’ growth. Resist this temptation as shortening the long, new, shoots would destroy the plant’s grace and flowering potential. Better to construct some sort of frame around them, up to about a third or half of their total height, using tree stakes and hoops of wire which the long stems can be arched over and tied onto. The overall effect is to produce a ‘fountain’ of growth.
Working around the bush, you should end up with all the new growth kept intact, and under control, thanks to the supporting structure. It’s a relatively simple task, in subsequent years, to remove the oldest stems and tie in the newest ones – thanks to the framework which you have imposed on them. As with climbing roses, trained on a wall or fence, the point of arching them over is to encourage every bud, on the top of the curved stem, to produce a flowering shoot hence realising its full potential.
Well, for me, 2017 was something of an ‘annus horribilis’, in fact the last decade has been pretty ‘horribilis’, so, surely, 2018 can only be better. I fancy reinvesting time into my own home, and garden, which has been somewhat neglected while I’ve been fighting other battles. Having grown vegetables for other people, for the past few years, it’s about time I started growing them at home again; I’ve found veg growing to be a particularly life-affirming activity—although life is too short to grow peas (at least while ‘Bird’s Eye’ is still in business). Happy New Year.