As I write this on a Friday, weekend temperatures are predicted to be in the mid-40s, the greenhouse garden is planted, and it's too early to start hot-weather seeds.
After what seemed like an excruciating long winter, it is difficult to stay indoors. These first hints of spring make me think of pruning roses, particularly one of my plants that needs some tough love.
Rose 'The Fairy' is the culprit, and it sits at the corner of the house in the front garden. Because it is sometimes hidden by the flighty growth of Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula,' an interesting, weepy tree I purposely planted off center from the rose, I have a tendency to overlook pruning this rose in spring.
Last year the battle was cut short when the shrub bit back with hostility. The Fairy and all low-growing Polyantha roses are notorious for their sharp, pain-inducing thorns. With the exception of an heirloom climbing rose, most of my roses are pruned just about the time new leaf buds start to swell on the stems. Branches that don't show any signs of new growth are culled without sympathy. But last year the fairy rose was overlooked until long, dead canes were a noticeable distraction from the live green growth and light pink flowers.
I love the fairy rose. Everything about it is miniature, except its growing habit. The leaves are half the size of a normal shrub rose and the flowers are barely the size of quarters. But they bloom without shame in large clusters that cover the entire plant, giving the impression the foliage is a minor accompaniment to the plant's fantasy-like display. The fairy is the rose I imagine growing at the bedside of Sleeping Beauty. Bouquets of its flowers would look just the right size in a tiny vase on a dollhouse table.
There are many reasons to prune roses. Removing dead and out-of-control canes helps improve air circulation inside and around the plant. Good air circulation keeps diseases under control. Pruning enables sunlight to get into the center of the shrub. Pruning also helps shape the plant to fit the gardener's whims and to keep wayward branches under control. This can be a catch-22 because pruning also encourages new growth, leaving a gardener no choice but to prune again next season. But then, that's the point.
When preparing to prune, it's important to be sure to have the right tools. Sharp, long-handled pruners for getting into those crowded centers is a necessity.
Thick gloves, something I didn't have last season when I attempted to tame my fairy rose, are equally important. A pair of sharp, bypass pruners also is needed.
Bypass pruners have a blade that is sharpened only on one outside edge, giving it the ability to cut through a stem close to a branch without crushing. Bypass pruners shouldn't be used on branches larger than 2 inches in diameter.
Once your tools are assembled, stand back and look at the plant and decide what your outcome should be. Prune away any branches criss-crossing each other. Look for branches that are obviously black, pruning back until the inside of the cane is white. Take out all damaged, broken or dead wood. Take out those tiny, twiggy-like branches.
Make your cuts at a 45-degree angle, preferably about a quarter-inch above a bud. If you've never had a problem with rose cane borers, you won't need to seal off the cut edge. But if borers were a problem in the past, you only need to put a bit white glue on the end of the cane.
If your plant is sending out baby plants, or suckers, near the base, cut them as well.
Here's what's great about 'The Fairy.' It was probably one of the first groundcover roses cultivated. Because it has a low growth habit, branches that trail the ground have a tendency to root. Many gardeners have increased their numbers by taking cuttings of this rose and using the plants to line walkways or act as low hedges.
'The Fairy' was first introduced in England in 1932. It was a developed by crossing dwarf multiflora roses with dwarf China roses, creating varieties known as Polyanthas, small plants that cover themselves with clusters of blossoms. Polyantha roses are extremely hardy, thrive in poor soil and continuously flower throughout the season.