When good garden writers give bad pruning advice

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Pruning image courtesy of Shutterstock

Yes, ProfessorRoush has not blogged for quite some time.  January has frankly been dismal here in the Flint Hills, and I’ve been leery of planning the return of green and glorious landscapes lest I awaken the wrath of the Winter Gods and precipitate another late April snowstorm.

I was rudely roused, however, from my winter slumber on a recent morning when my local paper printed the January 29th column of the esteemed Washington Post garden columnist, Adrian Higgins. Higgins, normally a sensible and knowledgeable garden writer, titled that column Prune Rosebushes in Winter, a bland and partly inaccurate title that leads the reader—eventually—to  founder blindly on the shoals of poor rose advice.  Thankfully, Mr. Higgins rambled over the first half of the article, presumably filling column space, before he got to rose care; else the damage done to Washington’s roses could have been much worse.

In his last few paragraphs, Higgins opens the rose-related conversation by stating that “roses are inherently sickly, but the vigor of modern hybrids far outpaces their woes.”  Apparently, Higgins is only acquainted with the inbred, over-pampered, disease-susceptible Hybrid Teas and Floribundas of the 1960’s-90’s, a time when monstrosities such as ‘Tropicana’ and ‘Chrysler Imperial’ ruled the rose world, commercialized and hyped to the point of nausea.  He never mentions the hardier roses that our forefathers grew, nor the disease-resistant, sustainable rose shrubs created over the last two decades by breeding programs such as that of the late Professor Griffth Buck, or test programs such as the Earth-Kind® program of Texas A&M University.

Higgins doubles down on his rose ignorance by recommending the annual pruning of all roses to a “goblet of five or six canes…cut back to 18 inches,” making no exceptions for once-blooming Old Garden roses, nor for leaving many modern Hybrid Tea and Floribunda cultivars taller or bushier.  My local newspaper compounded the omission by also deleting the last two paragraphs of the original column, where Higgins briefly mentions pruning exceptions for  “utilitarian landscape roses” such as Knock Out and larger Ramblers.  I appreciate his  demeaning characterization of Knock Out, but his description of appropriate pruning for these ubiquitous blights will only perpetuate the attempts of home landscapers to turn these shrubs into  flowering topiary.

Adrian, you did well with your recommendations of pruning for once flowering shrubs, shade trees, and hydrangeas, but please, leave rose-pruning advice to those with a broader view of the rose world.  I retire now, left to cope with my resultant nightmares of hacked down ‘Madame Hardy’ and ‘Variegata di Bologna’, butchered in their prime in the refined neighborhoods of Washington D. C. because of a need to fill newspaper column inches.  Oh, the horror.

Posted by

James Roush
on February 3, 2014 at 6:39 am, in the category Guest Rants, It’s the Plants, Darling.

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11 Comments

  1. 14th July 2016 at 11:23 am —

    Do tell Susan? What are they and where can the rest of us find them?

  2. 11th October 2016 at 11:50 pm —

    I agree that Adrian normally writes a good column, although I confess I sometimes look to find fault with him since I still miss Henry Mitchell.

  3. 26th October 2016 at 12:23 pm —

    DYI and the “one solution fits all problems” trend in gardening has all but ruined every garden in the country. Just like the native Nazis eschewing that only 12 native plants are all we should ever grow, your rose care expert is glancing past the fact that there are literally thousands of species, selections, cultivars, etc. of roses and each and every one of them responds differently to whatever happens to them.
    My experience with David Austin’s by the way, is that they are really variable in their vigor and you have to select the right ones. Same with teas but I generally don’t care for the form of tea roses – they look like parked cars decorated for a wedding.

  4. 13th November 2016 at 7:16 am —

    “native Nazis”? Really?

  5. 15th November 2016 at 2:03 pm —

    Godwin’s Law already, David?

  6. 20th November 2016 at 4:56 am —

    Hahaha – no – not Godwin’s law – I just used a common phrase that I hear in garden circles as a matter of expediency. Perhaps its not common everywhere.
    I’m certain that some native plant enthusiasts – while being unyieldingly dogmatic, opinionated and shaming of others with differing views, are not, in fact, associated with the Third Reich!
    My apologies.

  7. 21st November 2016 at 11:37 am —

    BTW – I believe the term had its origins more in Seinfeld rather than anything more sinister.

  8. 21st November 2016 at 9:14 pm —

    Love it!

  9. 24th November 2016 at 10:35 am —

    Oh, whew, I thought it was me! I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the winter pruning of roses thing. And the whole rest of the article wasn’t really a bad treatise on pruning generally (if you ignore the rose advice)

  10. 24th November 2016 at 12:17 pm —

    No winter pruning for me as all the roses are varied under snow.
    Since hybrid teas have to be fussed with so much here in Wisconsin I plant those darn utilitarian landscape shrub roses some of unfortunately bloom all summer with no disease problems. Oh the horror of it all!

  11. 24th November 2016 at 2:20 pm —

    Agreed Gail. I’m not braving subzero weather just to get a jump on my spring pruning!

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When good garden writers give bad pruning advice