Volunteering season over at The Alnwick Garden until the spring

You must have noticed the element of gloom that entered general conversations recently when the clocks changed, hours of daylight receded, and temperatures took a nosedive.

Thursday, 7th November 2019, 6:00 pm
Some of the volunteers among the roses at The Alnwick Garden as the season comes to an end.

Overnight, it seems, summer became but a memory. We gardeners feel it too, but don't dwell on the subject because each season brings its rewards and is part of an annual cycle to be enjoyed.

Deepest autumn is a time of change. There are continuing vegetable and fruit harvests to gather and celebrate, lawns to mow, treat and repair. We are surrounded by colour from leaves, stems and ornamental fruits, and barely have time to stop and stare because there's lots of pruning and planting to do.

So much for the instructions for November that I read in an old gardening encyclopaedia recently: "Clean and oil all your tools and store them in the shed for winter!"

A tinge of sadness accompanied our final session of the season at The Alnwick Garden last week. In keeping with other large public attractions, Alnwick has a substantial volunteer force, and our group assist the garden team in maintaining the 12-acre walled section. The annual contribution begins in March and ends in late October.

'Sounds like hard work, why do it?' I’ve been asked, and there are various reasons. It's healthy, stimulating, very satisfying and there's a strong social element. As volunteers in other situations will confirm, it's about being a team member and believing in the project.

Given this background, our end of season gathering demanded a photo-call amongst the roses we'd been asked to dead head. They've had fading blooms removed continuously since the end of their first flush in early July, to encourage new bud formation. If proof were needed that this system works, it was all there to see last week. Two favourites, 'Chandos Beauty' and 'Deep Secret', show no sign of giving up, and several standards of 'Joie De Vivre', quirkily planted amongst currant bushes, are flowering as though it were still midsummer.

Our volunteering season concluded on a high but it's not the end. We've functioned well as a group and shall return in the spring. Meanwhile, there's more free time for our own gardens.

Paul, who is one of our volunteers, and previously cultivated a garden in the London area, was interested in when and how we prune roses in the north. 'We do it in stages according to the type', I explained. Ramblers are first in line. They're done immediately after flowering, which is late summer or autumn. Ideally, remove all stems that have bloomed to ground level, encouraging existing new growths to take over. In the absence of young shoots from soil level, remove spent stems down to a point where new growth emerges.

Climbers, bush and standard roses are generally pruned in early spring, the optimum time being just before bud break. The idea being that to do so earlier would put any soft new shoots, encouraged by a mild spell, at risk from frost damage.

However, large gardens with hundreds, nay thousands of roses to prune, have little option but start the process earlier.

Priority pruning as we enter November amounts to reducing tall growths that will give purchase to autumn/winter winds.

There are two main options; either consider reducing their height by half or bend the tip over toward the ground, forming a bow, and secure it to a cane. When left in this position it is encouraged to develop flowering shoots along its length next summer.

The biggest disservice you can inflict on any rose is allow it to become congested with dead, diseased, damaged, weak or crossing stems.

They're first in line for removal when pruning. Don't be afraid to shorten healthy stems with dormant buds for this stimulates new growth. If you prune them severely it won't kill the plant, just delay flowering.

Exceptions are, very old roses. They struggle to respond to severe pruning. If such a rose has sentimental value, try hardwood cuttings of this year's growth, planting them in the garden now. Alternatively, graft some buds onto a briar rootstock next summer.

Friend Richard recently acquired a house with two roses, stem bare at the base and flowering wood halfway up the wall. He wished to know what the chances were of relocating them and encouraging lower blooms. I advised him to delay movement until November and reduce all stems to the lowest healthy bud before lifting. Plant them into an organic-rich hole, water and make firm.

The lady of the house took a shine to 'Gabriel Oak' when they met at a very busy Chelsea Show this year. Consequently, he's on order and will arrive, bare-rooted, in a week or so.

She's ready to stand the roots in a bucket of water for a day before planting and has a spot earmarked. I've offered to assist but it appears my services are not required on this occasion.

Can't understand the fuss myself, it's only one of David Austin's latest introductions, but do hope it enjoys the calmness of this garden, far from the madding crowd!