Divide and Conquer

I told you I had a plan. It worked in history, why shouldn’t it work in a garden?

My garden is already divided in sectors or large beds, since all of it is a total mess, I decided the best thing to do was to conquer it – sector by sector – and win my garden back again. Starting with the passageways.


It’s a path I have to take at least once a day, normally on evenings, to take the kitchen waste to the compost leap, for example. It’s a simple path and it’s ‘floored’ with gravel, which glows a little, so most of the times I don’t even bring a torch with me and venture out in the gloom. You might not believe it, but several times I’ve been attacked by rose branches in the dark. I felt my trousers torn, my wrists and hands brushed with thorns; sometimes they even knock my hat off.


You may recognize the same vantage point of some nice pictures shown on my previous post, the one with all those lush roses in bloom. Here you can see them – at their worst!

crabapplebedbeforeI took a class of rose pruning in Trieste a few weeks ago. The trainer was Maurizio Usai, an important garden designer in Italy; he’s a gardener and knows everything about roses. The course was very interesting, I knew most of the theory about pruning but actually never tried it on a plant. It gave me the self-confidence to start pruning.

It’s been sunny and rather warm outside, although all the mornings we still have frost. But it’s actually the seasonal standard. I took my leather gloves, my secateurs and some rope, an extra-large amount of energy and time was needed as well but the result fully satisfied my expectations.

crabapplebedThe crabapple bed is a rather large island between the grass garden and the rose garden. It includes obviously three young, but rather large, crabapple trees indeed (malus ‘Red Sentinel’) and a smaller purple-leaved one (malus ‘Coccinella’), a couple of tall miscanthus, a few other medium sized grass clumps, some perennials and roses. Roses here have been planted rather close to each other, because I wanted the effect of a large cushion of them and because actually I didn’t expect them to grow so fast and so big…

crabapplebed1I have pruned the roses like I’ve never done before (of course, because I had never actually pruned them before!), starting with the dead canes, then the old canes and then shortening the big strong new branches to an imaginary shape level. I might have chopped more, maybe, but I didn’t feel that confident yet; let’s see how they react to this pruning and then I’ll have more confidence about how to proceed next year. Pruning roses is rather easy if you learn how to observe the rose’s growth: the plant suggests itself how to proceed.

peggingdownTo give you an example, Adam Messerich is a bourbon rose that sends exuberant branches straight up to the sky. If you leave it that way you will see some flowers on the top of those branches… and not much else. After cleaning the plant from dead, weak and old branches, I took the young canes and tied them to a reversed ‘U’ I obtained from a willow branch. The result is a shorter plant with waving branches that will, hopefully, pruduce new branches from every bud and new blooms from every one of those new branches. I’ve been told not to peg down for more than a couple of years on any rose because it’s supposed to weaken the plant (but this is not really an issue with some plants, is it?).

Rudy and the cats liked the job I did and reckon it could become a nice pergola for them in the summer. Somehow I share the same feelings as my pets.

gattiAt the far corner of the crabapple bed there is the compost leap. As such, the path that leads there makes an ‘S’ with the crabapple bed on the right (sector won: Alberto-1, garden-0), and two large rose beds on the left. The first one was really bothering me. Last Spring it looked really good, although already a little messy and out of control – but at least bursting with blooms.

rosebedbefore1There are various roses here, mainly shrubs (there are Ombree Parfaite, the dark purple gallica I have posted lately) that lies all around a power pole on which a beautiful Zephirine Drouhin on one side, and a young, but exuberant Bobbie James on the other, climb and cover it up.

rosebedbeforeIn the picture above you can see how that same rose bed looked before I laid my hands on it – and below, you see how it looks now (just a different point of view), after a whole day of hard work.

rosebedafterThere is still a lot of work to do – but I guess the hardest part is the kick-start, then I will become more confident – plant after plant – and bed after bed. Now I have a big rose to train on the walnut tree… See you soon!


33 thoughts on “Divide and Conquer

  1. You certainly have been working hard, I haven’t started pruning my roses yet! Roses are very forgiving, there’s always next year if something gets cut too hard! I have one of my roses pegged down to get flowers all along the stems and it flowers all summer, it has been pegged down for about 10 yrs now and doesn’t seem at all stressed. Like you, I tackle the tidying of the beds, one at a time and try not to look at the ones that are still a mess, otherwise it is too overwhelming!

    • Your garden is constantly well tended, mine, on the other hand, is paying one whole year of neglect. It is really overwhelming even a piece at a time. Roses are like brambles at the end of the day: tough and exuberant plants, I just love them.

    • That’s true Judy, at least narrowing the sight to a single bed you think you’re almost done… Well in your case you don’t need to worry yet, that snow is covering everything in your garden, you’ll think about it later on 😉

  2. Hi Alberto,

    Excellent job done there; in general as long as you cut just above a bud node you’ll be OK. Don’t be too worried about it. Once you’re more experienced you just kinda learn what’s best… or perhaps that’s just me??? I just do what I want 🙂
    I only have one rose that really ‘needs’ pruning and I have to actually think about it when I do it. Otherwise it can look more like a cup – branches to the outside and nothing in the centre – so I make sure I prune some above buds/nodes facing in toward the centre of the shrub so it fills in nicely.
    Although I do envy your wonderful rose beds; I don’t envy having to get rid of all the prunings! Especially as some still manage to cut even through leather gloves!

    Your plan of working on one border at a time is by far the easiest. I did the same when I first moved into this house; otherwise I felt too overwhelmed by everything. And actually, it’s probably still how I look at the garden, for example I’ve tidied a couple of borders so far ready for spring, rather than tidying a little of everything.

    • Hi Liz! I’m going to post some pictures of roses that tends to produce new branches at the top of an old branch as such the rose stay ‘undressed’ in the middle and messy in the outside. You can peg down external branches to the centre of the plant or even cross them so that they will form a tiny rounded bush in spring. Since you talk about the house did you change you plans at the end? I left you while you are thinking about moving…

  3. Tackling the beds one by one is definitely the way to go. I do the same thing, our cold January means I am behind with my tidying but hopefully I’ll get it all done by the time spring arrives.

  4. You have certainly done a lot of work! Doesn’t it feel good? Everything will be so beautiful when it all is blooming! I still have so much to do in the garden before spring, but here it is either freezing or raining!

    • Rain could be the best ally in summer and the worst enemy in winter!!! So far I’ve been lucky except for today that rained a little bit. It feels good, yeah, I’m looking forward to putting my hands on again.

  5. I have not heard of the cane pegging trick– I will try to remember it. Roses can certainly be opportunists–you are wise to strike back while they are sleeping. I am always astonished by the huge volume of cut material from pruning. Do you burn it? Also, do the crabapple trees make fruit for you? Here crabapples are prized for making hard cider.

    • You told me once the cider (hard???) thing, in my garden those little apples are only an embellishment or magpies’ food. Cider is not really something we are fond of in Italy anyway, we have plenty of wine… 😉
      Try and peg down some of your roses, you’ll see the difference it makes!
      PS: when your next post? PPS: do you know I was in the verge of buying a white little west the other day? I’m looking for a dog to add to the crew…

      • Yes I seem to remember that we had the cider conversation before– sorry. It’s just such a big deal here, with cider bars etc. I’m actually with you in the wine preference. And I will peg some roses but also you should get a Westie. Max is ten years old now, and so sweet and easy. Look for health (no allergies) and temperament– but you know how to pick dogs!

  6. Well done, Alberto! Like the great Roman gardener, Julius Caesar, you have divided your garden into three parts. I always go section by section when I do spring clean up, otherwise it’s overwhelming. Your rose bed in bloom certainly is beautiful. I am still getting the hang of rose pruning. However, all my roses are shrubs or ramblers – basically brambles, so I figure I can’t do too much damage.

    • I liked the ‘basically brambles’ part! It is true for every rose indeed… My garden is divided in much more than three parts, although I won’t push my garden’s boundaries as far as England, like Giulio Cesare did. 😉

  7. Once your roses grow in, you’ll be so glad you pruned them. It’s just like a haircut. I love pruning anything and once my pruners are tucked into my pocket, everything is fair game! Your roses will be even more beautiful this year, if that’s even possible!

  8. It’s so satisfying working in the garden at this time of year, you can really see the results of your efforts. And what a fabulous garden you have, look forward to seeing it bloom in summer!

    • Thank you Jessica! You are right you really see the difference and you can see it for weeks, in summer I’m not done weeding yet that there are new weeds pushing up where I started… Crazy!

  9. When you start gardening, pruning roses seems rather mysterious but one quickly acquires a taste for it. I actually enjoy pruning now. I find I have removed just enough material once I feel you have taken too much away!

    • So the rule seems to be ‘less is better’? You are kind of right but it depends on the garden, the soil and the rose. Mine are like brambles, the soil is perfect for roses here, so I really don’t bother of cutting too much, except china roses that don’t like to be touched.

  10. Alberto you have a good plan for tackling such a big job…and how lucky to take a class from a master. Those roses look amazing once you pruned them. I generally prune mine in April as spring starts and if we get a hard freeze, I end up having to prune them again because of die back. It does take learning and confidence and you my friend seemed to be a fast learner.

    • I have been growing roses since I was less than 15 and am now 35. I guess it was about time to start pruning. Does that make me a fast learner?! 🙂 I guess April would be too late here, they could start blooming from mid April usually

  11. It’s good to see your garden again. You have worked hard with your pruning and I’m sure that having being taught by such a expert your roses will not suffer from this treatment. Sarah x

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