Secateurs poised, we stood, two students per rose bush, listening carefully to our tutor Mac. We could hear the traffic six lanes deep just a few yards from where we were standing . Tutorial over, we tentatively began to prune the Queen’s roses. Tidying up the plants in your own garden is one thing, but cutting into Her Majesty’s specimens is another matter altogether.
This was on the last Friday in February three years ago, the first day of the RHS Level 2 Certificate in Practical Horticulture course at Capel Manor’s centre in the Regent’s Park. After a morning in the classroom we had been marched through the park to the Crown Estate garden which consists of two half moons, north and south of the Marylebone Road, linked by a tunnel above the platform at Regent’s Park Underground station. We began to work, inwardly reciting the 3Ds pruning mantra ‘Dead Diseased Damaged’. I don’t think I made more than five cuts in my rose that cold afternoon. What with identifying the potential direction of stem growth to prevent crossing (which can encourage powdery mildew) and searching for the outward facing buds over which to cut (to maintain an open shape) I concluded that pruning is as much about looking as cutting.
I was reminded of this lesson this week when I pruned a mature Cox’s Orange Pippin apple tree in the garden of clients. It’s a beautiful tree, gnarled and branching out from waist height, with numerous fruiting spurs. ‘Achieve a good mix of useful wood of different ages’ counsels the RHS ‘Pruning & Training’ manual. I pruned the weak growth hard and the stronger growth lightly, and cut out a couple of older branches which were growing out so far from the central trunk they were in danger of splitting under their own weight. Again I found that I spent more time scrutinising the stems, spurs and buds than applying blade to branch.
If the apple tree prune was conservative, that of its neighbour, a tall shaggy barked Deutzia, was definitely radical. The deciduous shrub needed renovation pruning to encourage it to produce its whitish pink flowers which I saw described on a label at a wholesale plant nursery I visited this week as resembling fairy’s dresses. Those juvenile specimens were a far cry from the much older plant I pruned on Tuesday. I thinned out older woody branches, cutting to as close to the base as possible, and lowered its height by a couple of feet so that the apple tree beyond it can now be seen from the house.
A day’s pruning was the perfect opportunity to try out the folding pruning saw a friend thoughtfully bought me for Christmas. It was ideal for taking out the medium sized branches. My sturdy Felco secateurs made light work of the slimmer stems. Coincidentally, the following morning, a friend demonstrated a very impressive long handled tree pruner made by Fiskars, with which he had recently pruned the magnificent Wisteria which clothes the house at ground floor level. He had not had to resort to using a ladder and was delighted with the by-pass pruner. I confess that when I tried to use it I found that I did not have adequate power in my arms to both hold the pole steady enough to make a cut and ‘pull the trigger’.
With perfect timing, the Osterley volunteers were treated this morning to a rose pruning refresher session with the head gardener, Andy Eddy. He ran through the basic principles of rose pruning before taking us to see the various roses throughout the garden most of which he has already pruned. Many of these are climbing roses and he showed us a beautiful Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ in the courtyard outside the Study Centre whose stems he has encouraged outwards in a gentle curve so as to encourage new stems to develop along its length.
In the seating area behind the cafe red flowered R.’Etoile d’Hollande’, a climbing hybrid tea rose, climbs several metres up and across, supported by a series of taut horizontal strainer wires, around which the rose’s stems are tied with a double loop of green horticultural twine.
In the Magnolia Bed, beside the Cutting Garden, Andy demonstrated a method of creating a beautiful rounded shape to a hybrid tea or floribunda rose by training it onto a framework of hooped hazel stems.
The deep bed which backs onto the American Border sports two species rose, R.Banksiae and R. Glauca, both of which are left alone and not pruned. Until this morning I hadn’t appreciated the range of roses in Osterley’s collection and will enjoy seeing them clothed in blooms having studied them this morning in their naked winter state.