A Common-sense Guide to Pruning Rose Bushes

If you want to try pruning roses, here’s two pieces of advice from me:

  • Get a tetanus shot before you start. You will prick yourself 100 times with thorns.
  • Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing, or you’ll start a fight. Everyone thinks they know the best way to prune rose bushes.

OK, fine, here may be some do’s and don’ts with pruning. Here’s how I do it. If you disagree, don’t take it personally.

Basically, you need to prune the bush a lot more than you think you have to. I know I’ve done a thorough job when I feel a little pang of guilt about it and worry I’ve pruned too much. I never have. Yet, anyway.

To start, here’s a prime example messy rosebushes I have to cope with each spring:

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Wild rosebush on the loose!

If you just cut off last year’s hips and spent blooms, OK, you did something. You can stop there. I have, plenty of times, said the hell with it after that little chore. You can see those bits on the outside and top of the bush. But let’s say I want to do a proper job of it.

Next, cut off anything that’s obviously dead. This is also pretty easy. If the cane looks brown and dry on the outside, prunes off with a crisp snap under the shears, and is brown on the inside, you’ve done it right. There’s more of this than you might expect, if you’ve had a hard winter.

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Dead canes at the top, a nice healthy green cane at bottom left.

Take little bites at a time with the pruning shears. It’s easier to handle the debris (hello, thorns) and also ensures you don’t overdo it.

Now things get tricky. You also need to prune the stuff that is mostly dead.

 

You will know the canes on your rosebush are “mostly dead” when the pruned cane is slightly green on the inside. It may be brown on the outside, but there’s a bit of life left. “Bummer,” you may think when you prune such a cane, “this was OK after all.” Well, it really wasn’t. Miracle Max isn’t going to revive that cane with bellows and a chocolate-covered pill. The cane may have produced some offshoots, but it’s a second-best cane anyway. Gotta go. Prune it down to the first offshoot that’s heading in the direction you want the offshoot to head – outside and up from the bush, not inside or down. See below, where a few red offshoots at the top right had to go because they were headed in the wrong direction.

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This rosebush cane is mostly dead, so I pruned it back to where it was 100% healthy.

Then things get tricky.  Some perfectly good canes will need to go because they don’t play well with others. One cane may crisscross another. Look closely and you’ll see both canes have a little dead spot from the friction. One of these has to go, maybe both if the dead spot is extensive.

I prune canes that are also headed for trouble – pointing to the inside of the bush, pointing down, or going off at a weird angle that likely will break later on. I also prune very low canes that run close to the ground, since the dog likely will step on them and get thorns in his paws. This is all very subjective and debatable.

I don’t stop, however, until I feel like I have done a little too much. Here’s a before and after picture, with the finished job on the left:

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Pruned bush on the left, two unpruned ones center-right. The upper right bush is a river birch and needs its bushy shape, lucky for it!

One down, 11 to go! And yes, I see all the damn weeds too! No rest until frost!

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Appreciating the October Garden

The trees are just starting to turn here in Connecticut, but the weather’s been unseasonably warm and sunny and we haven’ had a hard frost, so flowers are still blooming. It’s a funny time of year for the garden, with pruning on the agenda, as we wait for the leaves to fall and for the annuals to die.

I harvested the last of the tomatoes and basil, and pulled them out of the raised beds for compost. I’ll process the basil with some olive oil and salt and freeze in mini plastic containers to use all winter. The frost had kissed, but not killed the green basil, and there was a little of the red basil left. It didn’t produce that well this year. The tomatoes were spent.

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I harvested more broccoli but left the plants alone for the most part. Despite harvesting almost every day, eating a lot and blanching some to store in the freezer, some broccoli flowers and goes to seed. I love these humble broccoli flowers, and so do insects. You probably can’t tell from this picture, but there are at least 9 species of insect feeding off these plants, including four kinds of bees, two kinds of moths, a ladybug, some other small flying bug I can’t identify, and one noisome garden pest – these gray aphids that form huge masses on the plant and suck the life out of it.

I prune off aphid-infested stalks and let the rest of the flowers go. The bees get rather aggressive at this time of year, as the flower supply dwindles.

While autumn color is still a few weeks away, my blueberry bushes are doing their own thing. I have three varieties in my garden, and they’re all donning their autumn colors on their own time.

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The fully green bush to the left is the “Blue Crop” variety, a midseason berry. Its scarlet neighbor is “Jersey,” a late season berry and the coppery neighbor to the right is “Earliblue,” an early variety, of course.

We pruned the lilacs and holly bushes so they won’t crowd the driveway and sidewalks this winter. I still need to do the roses, but that will have to wait for another day.

“You Can’t Spoil It”

I canned seven pints of piccalilli today, following two old family recipes. As with most family recipes, they make no sense. But after a bunch of roundabout instructions, random amounts of ingredients and other “be sure to’s,” there’s a line at the bottom: “You can’t spoil it.”

True enough. This stuff has enough acid, sugar and salt in it to survive World War III.

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The base for this sweet and sour relish is green tomatoes, as piccalilli is meant to use up all the veggies from your garden at the end of the season. I picked all my Roma tomatoes yesterday, saving anything red or almost red for one last batch of spaghetti sauce. The rest went into the piccalilli pot, along with a green and a red bell pepper, a couple of onions, and some broccoli stalks. Everything took a whirl in the food processor, before being salted, drained, and boiled in white vinegar with more salt, what seems like way too much sugar, a pickling spice sack and a generous palmful of mustard seeds. I hot-packed the relish into sterilized pint jars and processed them in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes.

They’re sitting on a beach towel because after they’re processed, I swaddle them in a heavy towel so they can cool very slowly.

I learned to can at my great-aunt’s knee. She had a kind of subsistence farm in rural New Hampshire, where growing and canning food was a matter of survival. I’d visit for two weeks every August to help her harvest, process and can her food. She had a special set-up in her basement with a giant hand-crank Foley Food Mill and some pressure- and boiling-water canners. It was hot, dirty, dangerous work. I loved it.

One time, we worked all day and went to bed early, only to be awakened by the sound of smashing glass. In the basement, we discovered that a jar of tomatoes we’d canned that day had exploded, in turn smashing several others around it. We’d forgotten to swaddle the jars and had left the basement windows open, letting some damp cold mountain air invade the space. We cleaned up the mess in our nightgowns, glass crinkling underfoot, the stinky tomato guts all warm and slimy.

I laid awake for much of the night, convinced that more jars would expolde.

The next day, my great-aunt inspected all the other tomato jars and decreed that the exploded jar was defective. She sent me home with several jars of what we’d put up, and I was afraid the whole long ride home that another explosion was imminent. To this day, I swaddle my jars overnight.

Some years, I don’t get around to making piccalilli or canning anything else. For one thing, a freezer is a much better option for preserving food nowadays. (We rarely have power outages; Every winter she’d be out of power for at least a week.) For another, I really don’t need to do this time-consuming, archaic chore. I don’t live off my food I grow or even care about it that much. But then I look around my home and think about all my blessings, and think about where I have come from and where so many of my relatives still are – scraping by, yearning for the past, feeling like a stranger in the here-and-now. I and so I make some piccalilli, using the old recipes, for Christmas gifts that are truly appreciated.

 

The $5, 15-hour Cucumber

My reluctant garden finally turned out some produce. Behold! The $5, 15-hour cucumber!

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Are you saying to yourself, “This looks like every other cucumber I ever saw?” Well, yes. But this is a magic cucumber. It’s magic because I put some seeds in some dirt and out it grew.

Now, are you saying to yourself, “Um… Duh… Isn’t that how all cucumbers grow?”

Again you are right. It wasn’t magic. It was horticulture.

Happy now?

I estimate this cucumber cost me $5. I bought a packet of seeds. I also bought some mulch. So those are my raw materials. We don’t count wear and tear on other things, such as gloves and tools. We won’t count the soil in my raised beds, since that’s been in place for a while. We also won’t count the cost of water. What do I look like, an accountant? Let’s just say $5 and call it square, OK?

I estimate it took 15 hours of labor to grow this cucumber. The “stick seed in the dirt” bit takes 10 seconds. But you know what takes hours? Weeding, watering, shoveling, tilling, screening the soil, making compost and digging it in. Also peeking at the cucumber vine to see if it’s coughed up anything yet.

So that’s my fabulous cucumber. I’m going to eat it with some hummus. I may get another one next week.

The Competitiveness of “Making”

Why is “making” things such a big deal?

I went to a dinner party Saturday night and got all snarky with friends about the glory of “making” vs. “buying.”

I happened to be wearing my tablecloth dress because these friends had shown an interest in the past about my sewing projects. It glams up pretty well with some cream-colored rope-soled wedges, a Kenneth Cole bag in sage green and some gold and jade jewelry inherited from my grandmother.

So when a friend asked if I made the dress, I said “yes.” Actually, I said “Is it that obvious?” She assured me it was not obvious at all, but she knew I sewed and so she always wonders when she sees me if I’m wearing anything me-made.

The guys at this party – my husband and two friends (husbands of the women) – had looks on their faces as if to say, “Please don’t let this mixed-gender conversation turn into a female-only discussion about sewing.” Clearly, most men don’t get it. They understand “making” something they enjoy, like baking a cake or painting a picture, but sewing women’s apparel is beyond them.

What’s a gal to do but to get a bit snarky?

One of these guys happens to have a pretty big garden. “Why grow your own vegetables and flowers? Why don’t you just buy them?” I asked. One guy homebrews beer. “Why do that? Why not just buy beer?” Hmm?

Clearly, I hit a nerve. I didn’t get much of an answer from the guys, beyond “it’s just a hobby” and “I’ve been doing it forever” and “I invested in all this equipment already.” Shortly after this little discussion, the guys decamped to the kitchen to talk, leaving the women in the living room. We shifted our conversation elsewhere.

When dessert was brought out, I could not resist another little dig. I knew darn well that my friend had not baked the peach tart that was put before us, but I couldn’t resist asking: “Did you make that?”

She said “no” and seemed embarrassed about it. Why? It was delicious and beautiful. We ate the whole thing. What difference does it matter if you make or buy? Are some things more worthy of “making” than others? If a man makes it’ does that make it more worthy?

Hey – if you want to make, make. If you want to buy, buy. No judgment.

“Women’s Work”

I’ve had these garden gloves for years. I never noticed the label: Womanswork.

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I love these gloves because they fit perfectly. No wonder – Womanswork is owned by a woman and many key staff people are women and relatives of the company’s founder. (For more info, see their Website.)

Wow does the term “woman’s work” get a bad rap. I have been watching this BBC show “Victorian Slum House” (airing now in the US), one of these shows where modern people try to live in historical times, and this old guy who probably would have been dead in the 19th century is all upset because he’s stuck doing “woman’s work” – making artificial flowers to sell to milliners. He tried “man’s work” at a bell foundry and put his back out.

I felt sorry for him, because back pain is horrific. But I turned sour at his disdain for the flower-making job. It put food on the table and kept a roof over the head of his whole family of five for a week. Why, is his mind, is making a bell more important than making an ornament for a hat? Is it because a bell is big and heavy and a flower is tiny and light? Because the bell costs more? Because a bell is “manly” in some way that a flower is not?

Both iron bells and artificial flowers are fripperies in life, one might say. Not necessary. Not important. One is not inherently better than another. But all work has value. All work matters and should be treated with respect, just as all workers should be treated with dignity.

A lot of young men find themselves out of work nowadays. That’s for a lot of reasons, but one reason is because of their disdain for “women’s work.” Health care is the largest sector of the US economy, yet it’s predominantly female. So is education; except at the collegiate level, female teachers and staff outnumber men greatly. Men need to get over this idea that only certain kinds of work are worthy of them. Or, they can stand back and watch the women continue to outshine them at every turn.

Me-Made in the Garden

I watered plants in the garden yesterday after work, while wearing my Tunic Dress from the Japanese sewing book Happy Homemade Sew Chic.

The dress is made of Japanese double gauze, which is very airy and comfy in hot weather.

The hanging plants in the background are hops vines. We’ll harvest the hops in the fall and give the crop to friends who brew beer.