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Country & Garden: It's time for vital cutbacks

Christmas is coming and, with it, the ideal opportunity to prune your roses to perfection.
In the borrowed words of that well-known gardening expert, E Costello: "It's been a good year for the roses." (If you don't count the blackspot, that is, Elvis.) The flowering of most of the "repeat-flowering" roses that I grow has been prolonged and generous. If I look out of the window, I can see a group of mature roses, of `The Pilgrim', with dozens of lemon- yellow, full-bodied flowers, still with heads held high above almost naked stems, these having been stripped of their leaves in recent windy weather. They are best viewed from a distance, however, for the weather has taken its toll.

In the past, most of us have not thought much about roses in December. Sure, experts have advised us to tread round the stems at soil level, after windy or frosty weather, to ensure that no gap opens up that might fill with water and rot the roots, and to make certain those roots remain firmly anchored in the ground. Otherwise, they have been silent.

Lately, however, there has been a shift in opinion in some quarters, towards pruning "remontant" (that is, repeat-flowering) shrub roses in December or January, rather than waiting until March to do it. This has a couple of advantages not only for roses, but also for ourselves.

To begin with, no one has much spare time just at the moment, but there is a prodigiously long holiday on the horizon and, if the weather is not severe, a morning spent, booted and spurred (or rather hatted and gloved), in the fresh air pruning roses cannot fail to clear the head and soothe the soul. There is never enough time to do everything that needs doing in March.

For a shrub rose, a pruning in the next few weeks, when it has finally become dormant, beats being tinkered with in March, when rising temperatures have probably already prompted it into lush growth. When roses are pruned in spring, this growth has routinely to be chopped off, which probably does not significantly weaken the plant, but certainly delays its flowering by, at the very least, several days, and sometimes a week or two.

Pruning in mid-winter is certainly advised by David Austin, who has done much to put the fun back into rose growing by breeding a race of roses, the English Roses, admirably suited to our contemporary plant-rich gardens. These are Modern Shrub roses, with the flower shape and scent of the finest of the single-flowering Old Roses, such as the Gallicas and Centifolias, but with a greater colour range, the ability to flower reliably more than once between summer and late autumn, and the habit (mostly) to suit being planted among herbaceous perennials and other shrubs.

The success of the English Roses during the last 30 years or so has been spectacular and very well- deserved, not only in this country, but also in the United States and the Antipodes, where the warm summers really suit them.

Some English Roses have turned out to be better "doers" than others, and there is always the chance you may buy one that turns out to be a disappointment, especially if you happen to live in a cold district. A good guide to the particularly reliable ones is whether they are found in other rosarian's catalogues, or garden centres. Universally available are `Gertrude Jekyll'; `Graham Thomas', `LD Braithwaite', `Heritage', `Mary Rose' and `Winchester Cathedral', for example; these are all excellent garden plants.

Pruning a particular variety is often a matter of trial and error, of getting to know the habit of the rose you are pruning. Some have arching growth (`Lilian Austin'), some are more upright (`The Pilgrim'), and some more spreading (`The Prince'). Their use in the garden also dictates how they are pruned. Some of the shorter growers, if planted very closely, around 18ins apart, will make a bedding rose bed; according to Michael Marriott, of David Austin Roses, if pruned hard, they are better at filling the space in such a situation than the conventional denizens, bush roses.

I grow my English Roses in groups, in mixed borders. For them to thrive when competing with hardy perennials, I need to be able to weed underneath them easily and feed them regularly, so I remove any stem growing horizontally low down, as well as all dead and obviously diseased growths.

I remove the odd old stem at the base, and perhaps trim back one or two of the longest shoots by a third, but that is all. I certainly retain the twiggy, thin, mingy-looking side-growths, because from these grow leaves which are vital for food manufacture.

Although it is well-established that you can successfully prune your roses with hedge-trimmers, I prefer a sharp pair of secateurs, to avoid shredded and split ends. In pruning, I am looking to create an attractive shape, as much as I am to renew the rose's vigour, and I prune lightly to promote quantity of bloom, rather than size.

If we accept that our winters are shortening and warming up, it makes sense to change some of our gardening habits. These days, we demand a good early autumn flush of rose flower almost as much as the traditional summer one.

By pruning in the next few weeks, and thereby promoting an early first show of flower next year, I am very much hoping that my beloved `The Pilgrim' won't waste so much of its sweetness on the wet and windy November air.

David Austin Roses Ltd, Bowling Green Lane, Albrighton, Wolverhampton WV7 3HB, telephone 01902 376300 for details