LET me tell you a story. Dame Nature employed three gardeners who carried out her pruning for many thousands of years. One was called Frost, another Fire and the third Teeth. Frost used to prune in the winter, turning up for work at various times. Fire usually pruned in the summer, and would have had less work if Frost had obeyed the book and burnt his prunings. Teeth pruned when he felt hungry, usually when bad weather hid his usual food; but also when the young growth was tasty in the spring.
Now Mrs. Nature is a lady who likes to do things to excess, but she is very clever at covering up. Because her pruning stafT were often over-drastic, she provided roses with suckers, so that if all the top disappeared roots could grow again.
As we growers have chosen to bud the rose on to a briar root, we must modify Mrs. Nature’s methods. A bed of briars is not highly thought of in horticultural circles. But I like to recall that without any pruning instructions Frost, Fire and Teeth delivered to us, through ages untold, a fine vigorous stock of wild roses.
For one thing, they never argued about when to prune. They struck willy-nilly. It should now be clear that when a rose is cut down, its response is to grow again as soon as it finds adequate warmth and moisture. I believe there is not one day in the 365 when you can kill a rose merely by cutting it down.
One can, however, choose the time. To my mind, roses are least attractive when pruned; and they are certainly in their most vulnerable state when a careless foot can break the best shoot off’. Therefore it is my aim in pruning to keep them in that state for the shortest time. When I think the worst of the winter is over, that’s when I prune my roses. I do not guess right every year, being an optimist. From early to Mid-March is usually the time in southern England, and as one travels north the period lengthens to late April. I hate to prune when the leaves are growing and the sap flowing – that sap should have gone into the shoots I had pruned to. Therefore, I prefer to prune too early, and chance the ensuing cold, rather than too late, and waste a week’s growth. The growing season is short enough in all conscience, and a week of it may well be 4 per cent interest, never to be reclaimed, down the drain.
Frost, Fire and Teeth never argued about cutting to an outward-facing eye. Mrs. Nature was responsible there, because she had told a lot of her insect guests to billet themselves in the stubs her gardeners left above the eyes. I have often felt mortified to look at my last season’s pruning, and to see the outward facing eye, so carefully selected, bearing a miserable twig; and lower down the stem, another eye has sprouted forth an enormous, admirable growth. Since, therefore, one does not know which eye will sprout most strongly, it is pointless to worry whether to cut to one that faces in or out.
We can take the lesson that nature did not prune to an eye and yet the roses grew. This thought can save much discomfort if you are pruning on a cold, windy day. If you cannot see an eye, just cut to the height you want. The next eye down the stem will sprout in due course; and on some sunny day in May, you can stroll round the garden like a king, secateurs in hand. As you do not need to lodge Mrs. Nature’s insect guests, you can then snip ofT the stubs above the sprouting eyes. You will feel like a surgeon of plants; you will be warm and comfortable, and cheered by the thought that you rattled through the pruning at high speed at the right time.
Of Mrs. Nature’s staff. Frost was the only one who showed proper discrimination in the matter of taking out inferior wood. He froze on to everything unripe and soft, and laid it low. Fire cleared out old wood first, but unfortunately did not always know when to stop. I’m sorry I cannot give Teeth much credit; with whatever four-footed creature he operated, he had a sad tendency to spoil the best wood.
Nevertheless, Frost and Fire are admirable guides. They take first of all soft wood, old wood, spindly wood. Soft wood may be tested by squeezing it tight between thumb and forefinger (provided you can find an area free from thorns). If it feels squeezy, it did not ripen properly last summer, and is unlikely either to survive the winter, or to produce vigorous growth next season. Therefore it must go! No arguing.
Old wood was kindling to Fire, and no wonder. The supply system in plants operates by the transmission of sap through one cell wall to the next. In a young shoot, the cells are young, their walls soft and moist. With age, the cell walls become woody and sap transmission more difficult. When it is really difficult, the sap must find another course, as any liquid does; and then the plant throws out a new shoot. The old one is gradually starved away, its cell walls stiff, dry, ready to burn.
Look upon your plant as a living thing, always progressing through some stage or other of these changes. It consists of shoots which are too old, and gradually starving, and other shoots which are the larders of the plant, where food and strength are stored for its use (and your flowers) next summer. This parallel should give you an insight, when pruning, into what is to be kept and what discarded.
Shoots to keep up
The state of the bark should invite you to guess the ages of your shoots, and you will obviously prefer to keep those which are greenest. The old black shoots, however, may have life in them yet, and the way to detect it is to look for the strength of the side shoots they bear. If strong young shoots are still coming from them, those old shoots are still worth keeping.
Having thus assessed the plant and recognised its larders, make sure to cut out all the less productive parts as low down as you can. If they are cut flush with the base, so much the better; or it may be that some of the unproductive parts (unripe, spindly, too old) stem from some of the larders, those best shoots, you wish to retain. If so, cut them off very close to the shoot they spring from. Or it may be that some of your best shoots are coming fairly high up from an old shoot; then cut off the rest of the old shoot close above that junction.
Rule of Finger
All that remains is to ask how short the plant ought to be when it has been pruned? Here is my suggestion, and it refers equally to hybrid teas and fioribundas, in fact all the most popular bush roses grown today.
If your plant is new, the best shoots when pruned ought to be approximately as long as the average of your fingers.
If your plant is in its second year, or in its third but not looking too robust, the best shoots when pruned ought to be much longer than your fingers, too, meaning to the junctions with older wood; or, if basal shoots, to the ground.
If your plant is in its third year, it ought to be approaching maximum vigour. If you see robust shoots that look just great, you can leave them the length of their optimum vigour, say up to 12 in. long. This will give you a huge bush next year. But anything not up to that cut short.
If your plant is old, remember there is a limit to the number of shoots it can produce from the base. You can’t cut everything off for 20 years and expect annual replacement. You have to make the established larders work for their full span. Therefore, be just as drastic with sub-standard wood, but leave old wood so long as it has good off shoots shortening it to the point just above the top off-shoot you wish to keep. This place can often be detected by a perceptible narrowing of the wood above that junction point.
I don’t suppose that Messrs. Frost, Fire and Teeth ever read an article like this; they worked a pretty rough method, but we are more refined nowadays. If you can’t prune your roses better than they did, I’ve wasted paper and ink. But we can all take heart from the fact that nature’s methods worked. If we can sum them up, and apply them in our gardens to our more sophisticated needs, I think we shall find the proof of the pruning about the end of June.