Eyes squint from facing into direct sun, arms tremble from being held above head-height, hands shake, fingers twitch. Just one more knot needed to tame the rose and fix it against its tower. The conspiracy of an evil breeze, a sinking feeling and the tie slips before it can be secured. Twine flutters to the ground and the stem of a thousand thorns is suddenly released, springing back with temporary freedom. On its way it caresses the back of the hand, a wince, a line of red fire, another to add to the score.
It takes a certain type of person to tie in climbing roses in just a tee-shirt. To reach inside a tangled mass of armoured stems bristling with hooked thorns, all to shape the rose into a structure to promote flowering. Normally a climbing rose will just send up long straight canes that will happily flower in a bushel right at the very top, ten feet in the air. For a better display, the trick is to contort the wayward stems, while still flexible, into horizontals against a wall or spirals round a rose tower. When a stem is set from vertical to horizontal a hormonal signal causes latent buds to break along its length and these can often flower. The rose knows what orientation its stems are in and leaves that face odd directions will re-orient themselves in days, like solar panels tracking the sun.
Going even further, a long bendy stem can be bent all the way round such that instead of reaching to the sky, it’s plunging into the ground and indeed, this is a form of layering that can give you a whole new plant. The part of the stem under strain, from having been bent round, will also break bud and flower along its length. This way climbing roses can be manipulated into much heavier, fuller flowering from the top almost down to the base.
I’m sat here typing this with plasters on my fingers and scratches on my hands. Thick gloves can’t tie string, thin gloves don’t protect. With over twenty climbing roses in the garden (some thankfully thornless), tying in roses is not a job I look forward to. It requires patience, calm and above all, a suppression of the reflex to snatch the hand back whenever it feels the prick of a thorn. Sudden reflexive moves in the middle of a crowd of rose stems makes for a very painful gardening session. The rose will appreciate the tying in to a support for stability, flowering and protection, it just has a funny way of expressing it.
Closer to mid-summer, when the roses are in full flower, I will have forgotten the throbbing fingers and painful hands, after all, no one comes away from taming the Queen of Flowers without some scars to show for it.