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Ask the Expert: Jenny Barnes’ Way with Roses

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Ask the Expert: Jenny Barnes’ Way with Roses

February 15, 2022

The question, “Will you do me a Niff?” is one that head gardeners are hearing a lot these days: garden owners, entranced by the pruning technique that @niff_barnes (aka Jenny Barnes) documents on Instagram, are asking for fanciful loops and circles to be applied to their own dormant roses. Fortunately, for those of us without a head gardener, and just the occasional climbing or rambling rose, Jenny’s method is attainable.

The beauty of this “swirly whirly pruning,” in the words of Jenny’s boss at Cottesbrooke Hall in Northamptonshire, is that the visual appeal of a rose is extended over several seasons, with bare tracery to gaze upon in winter, and a completely covered wall of flower in summer. The most important thing to bear in mind, says Jenny, is that “there is no ‘wrong’. It’s completely your interpretation.”

Photography by Kendra Wilson except where noted.

Above: Jenny Barnes’ swirls and twirls at Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire.

Interpreting a method is what Jenny did when she first arrived at her former post at Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire, a Cotswolds fixture noted for its romantic spill-over of roses. The head gardener at the time, Mark Edwards, gave Jenny an introduction into his method of pruning, and she took it in her own direction. “He’s really good at leaving the odd bit, much looser, and more natural. You’d get stems arching out, or a branch flowering over here,” she explains, gesticulating. “Whereas I like it really, really tight.” Either way, this system produces a lot of flower.

Above: A closer look. Jenny ties the twine and cuts the ends as she goes, using sharp secateurs rather than scissors. She replaces her Felco blade at the beginning of every pruning season.

A rose that is growing in a circle will bud, even more than one that is growing sideways, or in the more usual default direction of upwards. The latter situation, when a rose is left unpruned, is visually the worst—with bare stems at the bottom and flower buds waving in the sky. Jenny selects the stems and branches she wants to keep, cutting side shoots to two buds.

The above rose is ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’, which puts on plenty of growth in a season but is agreeably bendy and not overloaded with thorns. Branches cross each other without rubbing, because they are tied into sturdy, tight wires at every opportunity.

Above: Rosa ‘Paul Transon’ reaching around the windows at Cottesbrooke Hall. (Photograph by Jenny Barnes).

This method of pruning was developed as a way of creating a wall of flower: up, down and around windows. Jenny took the above photo last summer, after the old ‘Paul Transon’ rose at Cottesbrooke had had just one season to get adjusted to its new, amorphously spreading shape. The key, she says, is in feeling comfortable in cutting off a lot of growth. “Tie in what you need, and cut off what you don’t.”

Above: Looser swirls, in response to the nature of the individual plant. “You’re just trying to cover the space.”

Jenny’s method creates bold negative space, and this guides her pruning. When in doubt, cut it off; don’t let it get too busy. Every part of the plant needs light, and air. “Don’t worry about cutting off too much,” says Jenny. “Mark always taught me that you’re just trying to cover the space; once you’ve done that, anything extra is excess.”

Above: A more typically pruned rose, trained as an espalier on the outside walls of Nevill Holt in Leicestershire.

With a wall that is less high, a smaller climber trained laterally does very well. But Jenny is keen on large climbers, or better still—ramblers: “the bigger the better.” The masses of growth that puts other gardeners off, is appealing to Jenny. Ramblers send out long new shoots, often from the base, that are soft and pliable, all the better for making shapes: “The more growth you have to work with, the easier it is.”

During the growing season, Jenny cuts off all the new, non-flowering growth until the end of June. “By doing that, you get a wall of flower, without all of the excess green.” After flowering, the new shoots are left alone, making flexible material that can be used in late winter. “You can use that to train in, but you don’t need it all. I cut heaps off of the roses here.”

Above: Jenny’s before-and-after on Rosa Mme Alfred Carrière, at Cottesbrooke Hall.

There is no special “Niff Rose” Jenny insists: “You can make something out of anything.”

For more on pruning, see:

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