Thursday, January 7, 2010



Size is relative. Who would ever think that a redwood tree should be kept to 5 feet tall? Yet we have no qualms about whacking back shrubs on a regular basis in order to dwarf them to fit under the front window.

On the other hand who would deny the beauty of a an old apple espaliered against a stone wall, expressing the close relationship between elements of the earth; animate and inanimate carbon, carved and piled stone beside clipped and tiered branches.

The very pragmatic business of keeping plants in check in the garden has been at the heart of gardening for as long as humans have worked at it. Apples get too big for the tiny courtyard that shelters them from marauding animals; espalier makes them fit. Roses grow and grow eating up precious space needed for vegetables and fruit. Tie them up the walls, clip them to the ground.

This is how we arrived at pruning roses, a very long time ago. This is what we need to remember. We prune in order to control their size. We build lattice work in order to keep them in two dimensions—and isn't the result lovely? The word arbor descends from the old Medieval 'herber', a fence-like structure sited in an enclosed garden. Herbers were twined with roses and rosemary and all sorts of plants, bringing them up to the noses of those who wandered through, and containing all of that rambunctious life in a narrow, elevated hedge. The old European hedgerows must certainly have served as models of this garden artifice.

Roses ultimately found their place in another ancient garden ornament, the parterre. This flat design of gemetrically shaped beds, bordered in evergreen to articulate the shapes, was filled with flowers of all sorts over many centuries. Annuals, bulbs and perennial flowers filled the interiors of these spaces to brighten them up with color. Some plants fit the bill, others flopped and flailed. In the end roses took their turn and by the start of the 20th century they had pretty much been taken for granted as the ideal bedding plants for the long haul. Elegant examples of this survive in such roseries as Jules Gravereaux's l'Hay-les-Roses, near Paris. But a hundred years on we've nearly forgotten that roses are plants, with real growth habits, capable of power and grace, and not always in need of a haircut.


  1. Amen! I think some people avoid roses because they feel they would be in over their heads when it comes to pruning and spraying. Roses are just plants, and they are hardier and healthier left on their own than many people give them credit for. That being said, I still prune mine every spring. Might as well give them the best possible care. They do reward my efforts with their beauty and fragrance.

  2. Oh my! I just stumbled across your blog and after reading far too many entries, I am struck by a number of things -- the enormity of your rose garden, your commitment to sharing your passion and your project, and the quality and depth of your writing. (Oh, and your great blog address, which sounds rather dangerous.)
    I, sadly, only have a dozen or so roses and I'm afraid I prune them rather poorly and at odd times of the season, namely when I feel like giving my goats a treat. (I imagine you have a serious compost system, but if you ever want to get rid of rose prunings, goats love them. I believe they're high in Vitamin C for the caprines.)
    As an aside, I am also the Executive Director of Sonoma County Farm Trails, and I can't help thinking that Vintage Gardens would make an amazing Farm Trails member -- and that we in turn could provide support and benefits to your business. We are currently working on projects to specifically promote local nurseries, and trying to link local business success to education of the community -- which it sounds like you're very committed to. Is this something you might be interested in?

  3. You are really hard working on your roses. Thousands of them.... I guess my garden has perhaps 100 roses, with half of them seedlings of my own breeding.
    However I like to make a remark on the word "arbor". This is latin and translates into "tree". So arbor is much older then any medieval words. To which language does herber belong? Today there is no word herber in french, dutsch, english or german dictionarys. And it also does not turn up in old german language (mittelhochdeutsch)