It can be difficult to focus on the task at hand in a garden. Just walking from the back door to the bed you're working on leads through an obstacle course of weeds that need attending to, gopher holes dangerously close to healthy plants, neglected tools, half-mulched borders, blank spots in the garden crying out for a new rose bush or perennial, piles of fallen oak leaves just ripe for scooping up to cover some bare patch with good mulch... And before I get out the door my mind is ringing with other tasks indoors; the editing of my assigned section in Rosa Mundi, the orders that need to be pulled at the nursery, my mother's leaky tap, the three articles I've promised to write for journals around the world, the appointment I haven't scheduled for Flora's rabies vaccination.
Thank heavens for pruning. If you can get there, and stay in place, your quiet meditation somehow wipes it all away for a few hours.
But rose pruning, thanks to the generations that have come before us, who've set down the rules and regulations we're supposed to follow, can become a series of further distractions rather than a meditation. What was that rule about the angled pruning cut? Are my branches crossing? Did I remember to prune to an outside facing bud? Do I really have to reduce this plant to just 3 to 5 canes? Did I clean up all of the dead leaves? If I open up the center I'll have to take away the only good cane that remains! Aargh! No wonder gardeners are terrified by rose pruning.
Let me offer just a few observations that can serve to free you from the distractions of the mine-field of rose pruning lore, and hopefully lead you to a more tranquil approach to pruning.
1. Why do we prune?
—We're told that it's for the good of the plant. Yet, a study in the 1990s in Britain showed that moderate pruning, compared with harder pruning, results in plants that produce more flowers and are healthier. In reality we prune simply to size down the plants. All plants grow, and year after year they get larger. When we design our plantings we have in mind that each plant will ultimately reach a certain size; beyond that, it's out of control; it begins to crowd and compete with neighboring plants, or, more likely with the front walkway! The only way we can maintain the expected size for a plant, is to prune it when it gets too large. (We'd like to hope that when we're through whacking at that rose bush, it looks nice, not butchered. But the old rules don't lead us easily to an artful result.)
2. Rules of Pruning—angled cuts, crossing branches, outside-facing buds, opening up the center, etc.
—The angled pruning cut is the most difficult thing to do well. I'll demonstrate this in an upcoming post, but suffice to say, if you simply cut straight across the stem, just above a growth bud (at a right angle to the stem), you'll find the cut easy to execute from any angle. And, it's better for the plant, a smaller cut which heals quicker.
—Crossing branches are meaningless. Plants grow according to their nature, and some varieties grow at angles, with many branches crossing in the center. Second guessing the very nature of a plant implies that we know better than the plant how it ought to grow. And the danger of branches rubbing and damaging one another is silly. If you observe how this happens, you'll see that any such rubbing wounds occur slowly and are healed over by the plant itself.
—Prune to an outside-facing bud. Don't bother. Below that outside-facing bud is another growth bud which will probably grow as well, and frequently that second bud down produces a larger, more enduring new stem than the one we prune to. Since buds alternate from side to side on a branch, the next one down to the outside facing bud, will face into the bush. Once again, the hubris of thinking we know better than the plant how it should grow is at work here. Just prune to a bud, and stop worrying which way it faces!
—Open up the center of the plant. Now why would we do that? To bring sunlight into the base of the plant, to stimulate new canes to grow up from the center of the plant. If we want canes in the center of the plant, why are we removing them to open up the center? This is circular logic. Again, fall back on the notion that the plant probably knows better than we do.
—Clean up all dead and fallen leaves. We can thank science for clearing up this misconception. UC Berkeley did a study on this and showed that any leaves that are dead do not carry live fungi or spores. Leave the foliage on the ground to decompose and benefit the soil. That is nature's way. Green leaves may harbor live fungi, but once removed from the plant they too will die, and with them the fungi. A good bit of insurance to make sure this happens is simply to mulch the ground after pruning, to cover up and hasten the death of green rose leaves.
A simple alternative to the rules.
Observation is our most valuable tool. Once you've cleared away all of the old rules of pruning, try simply taking stock of how each plant is growing. Spend a few minutes at this, just observing. You'll find new, green, smooth shoots that have not branched; these are where the plant has channeled its energy over the past season, and these are the branches that we ought to try to keep. You'll find dead wood from which the plant has reabsorbed all of the nutrients to put them to work at creating new growth elsewhere. This process of observation is the greatest tool we have for learning, and pruning a rose bush is a process of learning about each plant, and trying to do the least damage!
Much more soon on how much to prune off, and why any final size is correct!