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The end of February is the perfect time to prune your roses, whilst they are still dormant but just about to burst into life. On Tuesday, as mine were starting to show signs of growth with a few buds opening I decided it was a job that needed tackling, so armed with some cleaned and sharpened secateurs and some gloves I set about the task.

I do have a bit of a love/hate relationship with roses. They are such a quintessential part of a garden for me and their scent is beautiful but they take a lot of care to look good. They seem to attract every greenfly in the vicinity, along with leafhoppers and are particularly prone to fungal infections such as blackspot and mildew. Trying to look after them organically, without an arsenal of chemical sprays at your disposal can be a real test.

Then there’s the pruning, a thorny problem indeed. A lot of people are flummoxed by pruning in general but roses, like clematis, seem to cause more than their fair share of panics. I think it is mainly due to the many different types of roses available; species roses, ramblers, climbers, old English roses, modern shrub roses, tea roses, musks, I could go on. It can be confusing to say the least as to how to tackle the different varieties. Coupled with this is the fact that roses have evolved to be covered in vicious thorns, natures way of protecting them from being eaten by grazing animals, although there are times when it feels like it was probably more to fend off gardeners wielding secateurs.

Rose 'Gertrude Jekyll'

We have 3 roses; Gertrude Jekyll an old rose hybrid, with a particularly strong ‘rose’ scent which was voted the nations favourite rose by BBC viewers in 2006, Geoff Hamilton, a Leander hybrid, again with a lovely scent and named after one of Britain’s most popular TV gardeners and A Shropshire Lad, an English Alba hybrid which we grow as a climber.

I started with the 2 shrub roses first. Pruning these is fairly straightforward, removing any dead, diseased or damaged stems first and then reducing the other stems to between one and two thirds. It is also good practice to try to create quite an open bush with no congested stems growing in the centre as this allows air to flow through the plant minimising problems with fungal diseases. To maintain this open structure always prune back to an outward facing bud, so any new growth is growing out and away from the plant.

It wasn’t long though before the roses were putting up a fight. It may have been the warmest February day for years yesterday but on Tuesday it was still quite chilly so I was wearing my winter hat. Whilst bending over my hat was snagged on some thorns, Gertrude Jekyll has some particularly vicious ones. My hands were full with prunings and I couldn’t release my hat. After a couple of tugs the hat came off my head but remained attached to the thorns as if the rose had acquired a triumphal trophy. The other problem was my gloves. They’ve been through the wash so much now that they’ve become really stiff, making it awkward to perform tasks that require a bit of dexterity. It was no good the gloves would have to come off, of course this meant I was scratched to bits. I also came across the first green fly of the year, can you believe it, already congregating on the young rose leaves just as they’re opening. So much for that cold spell killing them off.

I then turned my attentions to A Shropshire Lad. We have this growing up against a fence and I have been training in the stems over the last 2 years to create a nice framework. I still find it a bit daunting pruning this rose though and after a couple of minutes of looking at it wondering where to start I went into the house in search of my trusty RHS Encyclopedia. Because there are more stems and branches it can feel a bit overwhelming tackling a climber but with my book propped open at ‘How to prune and train a climbing rose’ I felt a bit more confident. Initially, the principles are the same as the other roses removing the dead, diseased and damaged stems but then it became more about maintaining a shape that encourages the most flowers.

By training the vertical stems to grow horizontally this changes the hormone balance in the stems and rather than the plant concentrating on producing vegetative growth it focusses on flowering. I removed a couple of large stems from the base and any spindly, twiggy branches and then reduced any sideshoots by about two thirds. Finally, I tied in the stems to wires already on the fence to hold them in place. The flowers on A Shropshire Lad are quite large and especially after rain can become heavy so it’s important to tie in any new growth over the year to prevent any stems snapping.

A Shropshire Lad, pruned and tied in

My back was aching afterwards and I was a little blood-stained from my thorny encounter but it felt very satisfying. Although pruning the climbing rose has exposed that I now need to paint the fence. Another job to add to the list. The question is can I manage to paint the fence without covering the rose in it.

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