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.