Deadheading, roses and gardening diaries


Deadheading is in full swing. I hadn’t really thought about how much time we spend deadheading here until I was out amongst the roses one evening.

I am pretty vigilant about deadheading the roses. Most of my roses are repeat flowering types so deadheading is particularly important. And in our no-spray regime, it gives a chance to take off the blackspotted leaves and constantly prune them back to new leaf buds. The new growth compensates for the laissez faire regime in their management. I give them a heavy and rigorous winter prune, but while deadheading them I am continually summer pruning at the same time and they respond well. And I have learned to keep the prunings separate. Being compost nuts, most vegetable matter goes onto the compost mountains but nobody appreciates rose thorns.

Some years ago I ended up in hospital with a raging infection in my foot (I had spiked it with a piece of rusty wire and the resulting infection was resistant to all but the most restricted and powerful antibiotic). And I was regaled with horror stories of infections from rose thorns. They harbour all sorts of nasty organisms so getting a rose thorn embedded in your flesh or gashing yourself with them is not to be recommended. Beware cellulitus, which has nothing to do with the wrinkly flesh made famous by the late Princess Diana. Treat rose prunings and rose bushes with care. I usually stack them by the incinerator for burning as they dry sufficiently.

But back to deadheading. We try and deadhead most of our rhododendrons and aim to get it done by Christmas (not that we always meet that deadline). The reasons for this are quite simple. If it is the type of rhododendron that sets seed, then the plant’s energies all go in to producing that seed to ensure its survival. If you abort that instinct to procreate, then the plant puts its energies into growing and setting flower buds instead. Some varieties are such prolific seedsetters that they will literally seed themselves to death, left to their own devices. If you know which varieties are infertile (never set seed) then you don’t need to deadhead those ones. But they tend to look better if you do.

I don’t grow many annuals so I don’t do much deadheading of those. But if you keep snipping off the spent flowers on both annuals and perennials, it certainly extends the flowering season. In the case of annuals, if you let them go to seed, they have then fulfilled their purpose in life and they die. So I have been out snipping off the seed heads from the soldier poppies, hoping to extend their season. I love these simple red poppies and broadcast a packet of seed last year. As long as I let at least one set seed every year, I should have them for life now. I have self sown pansies, blue cornflowers and linaria as well but I just rip them out when they look tatty and they seem to keep on coming each season without worrying about deadheading or making sure one is left to seed.

While searching some drawers last night for something else entirely, I came across our mothers’ gardening diaries. I think I knew Mark’s mother’s one was in there but I can’t say I recall seeing my mother’s one before. Unfortunately Mark’s mother only kept hers for three years from 1953 to 1955 but I found interesting historical information about the garden which is now ours, including the history of our stone millwheels and small stone troughs (we have three of each).

A common thread to both diaries was a love for roses. Mark’s mother wrote:

“Winter ‘54: All the summer I have watched out for “Old Roses” in old gardens. I had decided to make a collection of these. They have a quality not to be found in the new Hybrid Teas. They have scent and what is even more acceptable now in this humid Taranaki climate, dignity in the fullblown stage and constitution. The present day roses are unsurpassed when in that lovely ¾ bud stage, but while the long scrolled petals are elegant then, that stage is of such short duration here, the rose opening so quickly in our climate, they then become floppy with their big, long petals. And they can’t stand the rain. The old ones with their short petals hold their dignity much longer.”

She did indeed get her collection of old roses. By the time we took over the garden after her death, the rose garden was tired, overgrown and tatty. We took them out and planted them on our roadside where they get no care or attention at all. For the past few years, Mark has been saying that they are performing so well that he thinks he will retrieve them and use them in our park area. He does not mind once flowering types at all and can’t understand the obsession with repeat flowering. (We only expect rhododendrons to flower once, he points out.) Those old roses have terrific stamina.

Cross referencing to my mother’s diary, the rose theme continued (I had no idea she was quite so besotted with roses). My mother was an English cottage garden type so the roses were fully integrated in other plantings. But her list of roses for her little 800 square metre garden in Urenui was well over 60. I was amused to find an entry noting that “Mark has expressed an interest in the “English” roses now being bred by Austin in England. It appears that these new hybrids combine scent and flower shape of the old roses.” In fact, it was me, not Mark, who replaced the other mother’s old roses with a collection of David Austins ten years later.

Mark’s mother recorded the establishment of a permanent garden and she mentions the importing of plants from overseas and the excitement of these new varieties which they only knew from books. A separate folder contains the invoices for many of these importations and is a remarkable historical record of overseas nurseries and plant prices at that time. Many plants were unbelievably expensive.

In contrast, my mother created many cottage gardens. It was a family joke that the pleasure for her lay in starting the garden. She got bored quickly once it was established and had to move house often (about every five years, in fact) to acquire a blank canvas to start again. An unparalleled master at the quick result, my mother. I do not exaggerate – I can think of at least 12 different gardens she built from scratch around houses she lived in. Today she would have made a splendid landscaper or makeover specialist (as long as the client wanted the English cottage garden look which was her area of expertise). She must have been a dream customer for mailorder nurseries as every few years she would reorder her base plants again. Her diary details many of the orders she placed and often how much she paid for each plant. It is a good historical record of both what was on the market from 1960 to around 1990 and who the major nurseries were at the time. In her time, she probably spent as much on plants as Mark’s parents, sadly without leaving the legacy of permanence.

Reading these diaries, I found it a little unnerving to be following in the footsteps of these committed gardeners who had really good plant knowledge. They were of the generation where women did not go out to work every day. Briefly I wondered if I should be keeping a diary. They had started theirs when they were at least 10 years younger than I am now. I had to tell myself not to be so silly. I have been writing a gardening column for close to nine years now. My gardening diary is just in a different form and a great deal more public than theirs.

Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.