About urban front gardens and summer care of roses

Urban anarchy © Isabelle van Groeningen

Urban anarchy

The Schöneberg neighbourhood of Berlin where I live still has plenty of early 20th century fine old houses, each with its small front garden. As often is the case nowadays, these front gardens have turned into neglected urban fproblem spaces: Those responsible for them are not interested. They do not want to invest time or money in the belief that they will only be vandalized and become dumping grounds for unwanted litter. Oft shaded by street trees, they seem dark, dry and inhospitable, but every so often a little gem hides behind the railings.

A welcome paradise

A small paradise in front of the housedoor that greets you in the mornings as you leave the house, and cheerfully welcomes you as you return home. My hairdresser has one of these. No more than 25 meters square, this is one of the better plots as it is south facing, with only a compact red-flowering hawthorn tree casting light shade. In the summer months, when the sun is high enough, it gets plenty of sunshine, but in the wintermonths the sunlight is restricted as much of the day it does not appear above the tall buildings on the opposite side of the street.

Urban anarchy

I love this particular front garden as it is jolly and somewhat wild: right now, the bright red roses and rebellious yellow daisies compete with one another as they escape through the railings and spill over the pavement. A bit of colourful anarchy in this smart urban environment, where a lot of inhabitants’ ideal is one where well-trimmed hedges keep white roses and hydrangeas locked in perfect order.

Regeneration of roses

Second crop of flowers © Isabelle van Groeningen

Second crop of flowers

The roses have been there a long time and have developed thick woody stems which had been allowed to grow up tall, so you would walk like Alice in Wonderland below the flowers rather than enjoy them above. This spring we offered to prune them back. We sent James Foggin, our rose specialist to do so. He reduced them by about two thirds of their height – much to everybody’s horror. (I must admit, I would have been even harder on them and would have cut them back even further). As a result, the roses developed strong vigourous new shoots this spring as the season got going, producing glossy dark green foliage and masses of flowers. Most plants react like this when they feel their life has been threatened by a brutally radical hack-back: their wish for survival is so strong that they produce vigourous new growth.

Deadhead roses or not?

Rosehips forming © Isabelle van Groeningen

Rosehips forming

Their season is far from over. After the first flush of flowers, most repeat-flowering roses take a little break to gather strength before producing a second flush of flowers. These repeat-flowering roses should be dead headed properly, so that the plants will not invest unnecessary energy in seed production instead of flowerbuds. Some roses are sterile and will not set seed at all whereas wild- and once-only flowering roses will produce attractive rosehips which will bring much-needed colour in the autumnal garden.


flowerstalks dying off © Isabelle van Groeningen

Flowerstalks dying off

Deadheading should be done properly. Just removing the faded flowers at the end of the stalks is easy when you have no scissors at hand, but the leafless stalks will die off and turn brown, so that sooner or later you need to cut them off after all. Ideally the flower stalk should be cut back to the first full leaf: often the first leaves under a flower consist of only 3 leaflets, instead of the usual 7, 9 or more leaflets of the rest of the plant. (The number depends on the variety or species.) From these weaker points, the rose is unlikely to produce a strong new flower shoot. You will have more success if you cut a little further down to a healthy leaf so that the plant has the chance of growing a good new flower shoot that will provide you with a strong second crop of flowers.

Hybrid rose leaf © Isabelle van Groeninge

Hybrid rose leaf

Wild shoots

Wild shoot leaf © Isabelle van Groeningen

Wild shoot leaf © Isabelle van Groeningen

At this time of year it is also wise to look out for new shoots coming off the root rather than the main stems. Most roses are grafted on a different rootstock to increase their vigour and improve their health. Occasionally the root will produce a new shoot, which left alone, will rapidly gain in strength and produce its own, mostly single, smaller flowers. It is therefore important to remove these wild shoots from the root. If in doubt whether a new shoot is a wild one or a good one of the desired variety, look at the colour and shape of the leaves and thorns. New foliage can be misleading, so do always compare the thorns as well to make sure they are different.

Don’t forget to give them a soaking in hot, dry weather – they will thank you for it with improved health which in turn will lead to Improved urban flower performance!