Still timid? Find your inner pruner

Despite grey skies and stormy weather, soils are warming and bulbs are blooming. Savvy gardeners have begun their spring chores and are fertilizing their winter vegetable garden. If you've got a sunny spot, you might plant some peas.

Those of us who are behind on our garden tasks should be out on the best days, cleaning up perennial gardens, taking down the stalks of plants left for winter bird forage and, of course, pruning.

The leaf buds on my roses are beginning to send out new growth. This year I vowed to prune my plants in a timely manner, something that usually doesn't happen. I generally get all the equipment out with the intention of pruning, then, confronted with all those branches, sprouts and canes, I get very confused.

I am a timid pruner.

While timidity is forgiven by some plants, many of our cultivars do not benefit by hesitancy. I've already created something of a "bio-hazard" by failing to prune my apple tree. My roses are in danger of the same neglect. (And I call myself a gardener! Tsk. Tsk.)

An overgrown rose is like a casserole with too much potato — you can enjoy it, but certainly not as much. Timid pruning tends to create a number of distortions in the summer shrub: quantity rather than quality of blooms, top-heavy canes that break in the wind and create an opening for disease. These leggy shrubs beg for under-plantings to hide their scrawny canes.

Another rose "pruning problem" I see in gardens around the valley is when people unknowingly care for the hardy root stock of a long-gone cultivar. For decades most "named" garden roses have been grafted onto more vigorous root stock. If a plant is neglected, say by lack of proper pruning or inadequate water, the more delicate hybrid can die back, leaving the resilient roots to send up new canes.

You should suspect that's happened if your roses have thin, brittle, arching canes with small red blooms that emerge only once a year, with perhaps eight to 12 petals. Take heart and cut these down and dig up the roots, as they don't deserve the fertilizer and water you are bestowing on them.

There are many worthy roses that can replace these. We even have a local grower who propagates roses on their own roots — Janet Inada, owner of Rogue Valley Roses. She has mostly heirloom and rare, old roses. Visit her Web site for more information:, or call 535-1307. Her nursery is open by appointment on Wednesdays and deserves a springtime visit.

Now is the time to sharpen your pruners and put on your heavy gloves. I always wear elbow-length leather gloves when I prune roses. Judging by my reaction every time I get pricked by a thorn, I must be allergic to them. Yet another sign of their attempt to dominate me.

Because of my pruning disability, I refuse to buy any rose that promises "vigorous growth." Until I am able to assert my pruning power, only plants that need to be coaxed out of the ground, or are satisfied to grow madly on their own (ramblers, groundcover roses and some shrub roses), are safe in my garden.

If you also are challenged by the hazards and vagaries of pruning, consider a hands-on pruning class, as I have. Check the local nurseries for classes or sign up for the one offered by Jackson County Master Gardeners: fruit-tree pruning tomorrow and rose pruning on March 7. For times and cost, call 776-7371.

I consider it assertiveness training.

Althea Godfrey is gardening editor for HomeLife magazine. Reach her at

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