Hilling roses

Garden Making

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Winter protection helps roses survive winter. (Garden Making photo)
Winter protection helps roses survive winter. (Garden Making photo)
Winter protection helps roses survive winter. (Garden Making photo)

If you haven’t hilled up your roses that aren’t super hardy, there’s still time.

Hilling roses isn’t meant to protect the wood above ground, but to ensure the vulnerable bud union won’t be exposed to severe freezing. That bulgy knob at the base of most rose shrubs is the bud union, where understock roots and grafted scion (or upper canes of the plant) are surgically grafted together. (Of course, if your roses are on their own roots, they’re probably quite hardy and won’t be so endangered by deep cold.) But the bud union is always vulnerable, not just to frost, but also to physical damage from tools that crack, chip or partially separate the graft, allowing disease pathogens to enter the wood through injuries. Frequently, unexpected loss of wood on a grafted plant or failure to thrive can be traced to a weakened bud union.

In cold climates, the bud union is buried two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) below ground to keep it from being directly exposed to frost at the soil surface. But that’s not enough depth to completely guard against injurious freezing. It’s necessary to hill up the shrub at the base, piling further insulating soil overtop the graft. Garden soil (taken from another part of the garden, not from around the rose), purchased potting soil or garden compost can be used. A single bucketful of soil isn’t enough. The hill should be 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) high and 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) wide. (Leaves are also good for hilling roses, providing you can keep them in place around the shrub.) In spring, wait until night temperatures remain above freezing, and buds on the canes are turning red before pulling back the hilled soil and spreading it across the growing bed.

Like most gardeners, I have my own way of doing things. I start the hill with a small pile of soil over the crown of the plant, then add a thick layer of leaves to trap insulating air within the hill, and then finish with another generous layer of soil covering the leaves to seal the hill and keep the leaves in place. This has worked very well in my garden, maintaining an even temperature in the soil surrounding the bud union when snow cover isn’t available.

Last-minute weeding

At the absolute end of the growing season, when the garden is all but closed and a long, contemplative winter is ahead of us, do we really need to be thinking about weeds? Yes. Weeds of many kinds love this cool, almost freezing weather and take advantage of every remaining day to advance their progress. (They will even grow in mid-winter, if there’s a long thaw with elevated temperature.)

Common lawn weeds such as tap-rooted dandelion and fibrous-rooted plantain aren’t active now; but the more aggressive, mat-forming weeds with running roots (called stolons) or prostrate stems are galloping faster than horses and rooting as they go along. I know this for a fact, having just turned over several yards of soil colonized by my current nemesis, creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), to find they have robust white roots actively infiltrating new soil as if it was still July. Clearly nothing short of an Arctic blast is going to shut down this buttercup machine.

What to do? My wheelbarrow is stored away, the water is turned off, most tools are stowed in the garage loft. I’m not prepared to get down on the cold earth and start grubbing them out with a dinner fork. So I’m using a spade to turn over the area, lifting large earth clods containing the green foliage and entire root systems, and leaving the buttercups upside-down on the soil surface. My hope is that frost will kill their exposed under parts, and I’ll deal with cleaning up the clods in spring. I just need a blanket of snow to hide my sins.

Gifts for the gardener

So much of gardening involves tools and accessories from generic categories like rakes, shovels and pruners. It’s a pleasant surprise to deliver a unique gift that’s both unusual and useful, and here are three.

• A good hand scoop is hard to find, and Rittenhouse.ca has a dandy. It’s an English-made compost scoop ($14.99) with hardwood handle and leather hanging loop, stainless steel neck and scoop body with high sides. It’s able to transfer more soil than a traditional trowel, and without spilling over the sides. There are two companion tools if you want to make a set of it: a round-tine hand fork ($13.99) for cultivating heavy or clay soil, and a two-prong weeding fork ($13.99) for working in tight spaces in rock gardens. All three tools are approximately 12 inches (30 cm) long.

• Heated rooms in winter are dry and parching for plants, particularly for delicate table ferns and small orchids preferring a more humid environment. Victorian gardeners used miniature glass houses, called Wardian cases, to house plants on parlour tables. Lee Valley Tools (leevalley.com) has two styles of small table-top Wardian cases ($42.50) made from powder-coated steel frames and glass panels, in traditional conservatory styles—one with air vents and the other without. They’re beautiful to look at, and much appreciated by plants needing moist air on their foliage. A plastic interior tray is included.

• Have you had the pleasure of hearing a classical garden gong? From Japan (fromjapaninc.com) has a musically tuned, brass, hanging gong ($99) with attractively finished wood parts that sounds one low, deep note. (Look for the special items category on the website, then click on home and garden in the drop-down box.) The gong can hang in a tree or arbour and is quite low in tone, and not too frequently heard because it takes a strong breeze to move the rubber striker. The result is a private sound, inducing feelings of peace and harmony; and the gong is attractive enough to be a piece of garden architecture. This gong makes me feel serene, which I consider useful.

Still blooming in the garden: last petals

Blooming from the beginning of November through late December, Helleborus niger ‘Praecox’ is the Christmas rose in my garden. It has Balkan genes, which give it some hardiness, and will keep putting out flowers until buried in snow. These are the last petals I’ll see in 2010.
Thanks for stopping by Making a Garden. Hope to see you again next week.

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