Fabulous, Fanciful, February: Rose Pruning at Sissinghurst

Typically, much of my January and February is spent pruning deciduous shrubs and vines – particularly roses and hydrangeas, present in most of the gardens under our care. This week, however, there has been no pruning, all was on hold. Very unusually, we had a major snowfall, which has left me free to do other long-neglected tasks the past few days. One of them has been digging out photos taken at Sissinghurst on a sunny February day a couple of years ago. Before we get on to more rose pruning next week, I wanted to have another look at the intricate and impressive techniques I saw there, and figure out if we can incorporate some of them into our regimes.

This is one of those lost horticultural arts for me – I’ve never seen roses treated this way. I was astounded to see these beautifully sculptural shapes that almost look animated, as though they might dance right out of the beds.

The arched canes curve and swirl, stretched and tied to hazel ‘benders’ or ‘hoops’ positioned around the skirts of the shrubs. Or to four vertical poles placed around the varieties that have a stiffer growth habit, keeping their forms more upright and narrow.

To use this technique on your shrub roses, start by tying the long flexible canes from the outside of the plant, then as you move towards the middle, attach the inner canes to the stems already tied to the benders, creating an ever-mounding web. Any lateral shoots are shortened to a couple of inches to encourage flowering close to the main framework. Instead of shortening the long canes and thereby creating woody, leggy shrubs surrounded by bare ground, with all the flowers at the top, the roses at Sissinghurst (if you are so lucky to see them in full flowering madness in June) are fountains of flowers.

Climbers and ramblers grown on the walls and arbours throughout Sissinghurst are treated similarly. After removing the previous year’s flowering canes and some older woody stems (to encourage new shoots from the ground), the remaining stems are re-attached to the ancient brickwork, starting from the middle of the plant and working outwards, with the tip of each cane bent and tied onto invisible wires, or to the cane below, in swirling, curling patterns.

The technique is particularly striking in the White Garden, where Rosa mulliganii drapes and cascades over the metal arbour at the centre of the garden. In winter, the lace-like view through the newly-trained canes to the blue sky, tied in intricate curves and pincurls, is ever so beautiful.

This is horticultural finesse. And a technique that I will be trialling in adventurous gardens this year.


Sissinghurst Castle is an English garden in Kent created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s, now a National Trust property.
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