American Rose Magazine 1(17): 10-12 (Sept-Oct 1935)
To Whack or Not to Whack
DR. J. H. NICOLAS
EDITOR'S NOTE.—This Magazine, like its big sister, the Annual, is a free forum, as our friend "Nick" well knows. "Much may be said on both sides," and Mrs. Foote's wonderful roses may be a reply to be considered, for she does not "Whack." But the rose is most enduring and complaisant.
THE interesting article, "Against Hard Pruning," by R. S. Hennessey, of Oregon, in the July-August issue, coming after the one "Root Pruning (Whacking)" of March-April, seems to be directed mainly to me. I had ignored the first one but I now feel that I should answer both.
I have intimate relations with many members of the Hennessey clan: Three-Star, R. S. O. P., Five-Star, V. S. O. P., etc., but it is my misfortune not yet to be acquainted with R. S.!
I do not know where R. S. has acquired his rose-growing experience, but he seems to consider only his local conditions. I have studied rose-growing in practically all European countries (where I am a biennial visitor) and most American states east of the Rockies. I have no set, immutable notions collected within a few miles; when I speak, I speak of what I have seen in many places distantly apart, and of experiences by rosarians of career which experiences I have checked by my own, disproving some, approving many.
Coming back to root-pruning: according to R. S.'s description, the digging, handling, and storing of roses 'around Portland is very rudimentary. More roses are grown, handled, and stored in my immediate vicinity than there are around Portland. A gang who would handle roses the way R. S. describes would be instantly dismissed!
There is a considerable difference between bare-root roses in a storage "cellar" (although above ground), with temperature and humidity scientifically controlled, and exposing roots to the open air "for even five minutes." Any propagator knows that the success of a batch of cuttings depends mainly on the freshness of the bottom cut and its immediate callusing because roots will first grow from that callus. If the tissues have dried at all, the cuttings will fail to strike.
It is true that roots have stored food, but that food will soon be exhausted by the early growth, and unless new fibrous roots have been induced previously to develop to supply new plant-food after the stored one is exhausted, the plant stops growing. There are only two places in a root-system where feeding-roots can be induced to grow-at the collar near the surface (especially if the understock is of the cutting type) and from the callus at the fresh cut of the main roots, this callus being the earliest source. Shortening those main roots may reduce the amount of stored food, but being nearer the surface because of that shortening, oxygen will promote and accelerate the new feeders which will keep the plant going after its stored food-supply has been used up. Eventually some feeders will grow along the main roots but too late to do much good.
Of course, Portland being such a heavenly rose climate, roses may there survive the grossest and most unhorticultural treatment, but there are other places besides Portland, and in some of those places rose-growing is a continuous fight against unrosewise conditions, and reasonable success is a real achievement!
Now we come to top "whacking." I quote from my ROSE MANUAL, page 154, pruning Hybrid Teas:
The first act begins at the base, removing all weak growth, misplaced branches and old wood. The second act consists in shortening the remaining canes. This operation varies somewhat with the inherent vigor of the variety, Radiance should be left longer than Columbia, which in turn should be longer than Mrs. Aaron Ward. For average blooms of garden decoration, a good method is to remove two-thirds to three-quarters of the previous year's growth.
This is not "whacking." A four-foot Radiance, which is the yearly height of an average plant, would thus be pruned back to about eighteen inches. Leaving more wood would be growing roses on stilts, or on bare legs. The first principle of rose-culture is to promote new wood from the base, but an unpruned or insufficiently pruned plant seldom breaks from the base. Some varieties may be left unpruned to grow into large bushes, but their flowers may degenerate into posies. I insist that the word "rose" implies quality, and unless we reach the maximum quality possible to the variety, we have failed in our purpose. That maximum quality cannot be obtained without a rather severe pruning. A friend of mine once remarked, "But Nature does not prune" to which I answered "Nor does it cut your hair and shave your chin."
However, there is considerable whacking done by Nature, and it is safe to say that at least half of the amateurs live in a climate where many Hybrid Teas freeze back to the soil or protection-line, which means in most cases pretty close to the bud. Yet those roses usually come back, growing and blooming better than those untouched by winter but left unpruned. Our test-gardens, with over 25,000 plants, went through that experience two winters in succession, and at present writing (August 25), I, a six-foot man, do not have to stoop to smell Radiance or President Herbert Hoover, and most other varieties are from four to five feet tall. Yet, on April 15, there was hardly a stick of wood to be seen out of the ground!
The claim that "It takes a large frame to hold sufficient foliage to manufacture enough food to have a large quantity of bloom" is sheer nonsense in my opinion. In the first place, foliage does not "manufacture" food; it only transforms or digests what is sent from the roots, and these increase in proportion of the demand from the foliage. It is an acknowledged fact that roses, shrubs, and trees grow more vigorously and develop a greater leaf-surface when pruned. European people are more rose-minded than we are—and grow better roses than most of us—and their pruning is more radical than I recommended in my Manual. Here is an instance that will interest Portland: The most beautiful planting of Mme. Caroline Testout (250 plants) I have ever seen was last summer in a large estate near Bruxelles, Belgium. They were the original plants received from Pernet in 1894, but were pruned to the ground each year so that not even the stubs showed. I dug around one plant; the stool was at least six inches in diameter and the main root-stalk four inches in diameter! Perhaps if that same treatment had been applied at Portland, Caroline would not have petered out!
As to newly planted plants, lack of "whacking'' is the cause of nine-tenths of failures (the other tenth is poor planting), and I need only quote the late Rev. J. H. Pemberton "A newly planted rose-bed must look as if uninhabited." A very large majority of our people still insist on the unnatural, death-dealing, heretic spring planting, and at that season an unwhacked plant is sure to die almost everywhere, except, perhaps, in the moisture-laden atmosphere like Portland. Those planted in the fall need not be as severely pruned; although I do it with howling success. The only thing that counts in a new Hybrid Tea rose plant is the roots and "works"—the union with about two inches of wood, perhaps three at most. The rest is an incumbrance, and a heavy drag on the roots.
If whacking is such a deadly process, can R. S. explain ''how come'' that the finest, pinkest stage in the life of a rose plant is the maiden period in the held, which plants were whacked back to only one eye, the bud previously inserted?