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Stripping Lessons 

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On a Saturday morning earlier this month, several of us gather on benches inside the Huntington Library and Gardens before opening time. The gardens to the south are green and bronzed, tranquil, steeped in cool, deep early-morning winter light. At first, only bird song is heard, then a lawnmower chimes in. We’re a motley crew, ranging from our 20s on up. One gent in overalls announces to nobody in particular, “I’m 82.” The day is on its way to being unseasonably hot.

Many of us have brought gloves and pruning shears, and there are all kinds of hats — canvas, billed, straw. The man next to me shows off his pruners, which, like a good schoolboy, he cleaned for the occasion: a pruning demonstration with rose curator, author and eminent rosarian Clair Martin. We’ll practice our pruning on the Huntington’s roses. There’s some low-grade amusement at paying $25 to prune. “After today,” says one woman, “I’m going to hold my own class and have friends pay $25 to prune the roses in my back yard.”

A few minutes after 9, we’re led to the rose garden, where a vast bed of David Austin roses stands clipped and devoid of leaves; beside it, another bed stoically awaits the same fate. We stand beside a silk tree by a round bed of blushing pink First Kiss hybrid tea roses still boisterously blooming.

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Clair Martin, white-haired, tanned and as easygoing as he is erudite, is in a white canvas hat; his polar-fleece sleeves are pushed up to his elbows to reveal arms already crosshatched with scratches.

“Does anybody know why pruners have red handles?” he asks, hurling his pair to the ground.

“So you can find ’em,” yells the class.

Martin takes us through the types of pruners — we want secateurs or bypass pruners, he says, not the anvil pruners, which can chew up canes. He shows us how to clean, oil and sharpen our tools.

As for gloves, Martin eschews the elbow-length gauntlet gloves. “They’re too hard to take on and off,” he says. “Which I think about because I’ll be pruning three to four thousand roses in the next week.”

The time to prune roses in Southern California starts in January and runs through the middle of February. Roses need to be pruned, says Martin, because they evolved in northern climates where they went dormant during the winter. “Here, we prune to make them take a full dormant rest, because this will give us better flowers, with better fragrance and maximum health.” Defoliating — stripping the plants of all leaves — helps rid the plant of disease.

There are many ways to prune a rose, he explains, depending on what you want from the rosebush. At L.A.’s Exposition Park, the bushes are pruned 8 to 10 inches high: “The English approach,” says Martin. “The English punish the rose for living and growing.” Rose Hills gardeners prune 12 to 18 inches high. “They have a big Mother’s Day event, and they prune with that in mind.” The harder the pruning, the fewer and bigger the flowers. The Huntington’s approach, which is to prune one-third to one-half of growth, is considered quite light; the plants flower earlier and yield more blooms of somewhat smaller size. One year, Martin says, a rosebush at Exposition Park had six big, lovely flowers. The same kind of rose at Rose Hills had 12 blooms. The same bush at the Huntington had 150 blooms, with several as big and lovely as on more heavily pruned bushes.

“At the Huntington,” says Martin, “we treat our roses not as exhibition flowers but as garden shrubs.”

He shrugs. “Basically, a harder or lighter prune is your decision.”

Martin’s modest approach to roses is reassuring, practical and environmentally friendly. “We don’t spray, we don’t use any insecticide or fungicide, we only spot spray when necessary, and give basic care. You hear that roses are difficult and temperamental, but that’s baloney. Roses are the easiest plant; they grow in all 50 states, under all conditions, from desert to high mountains, in gardens with virtually no care. I’ve seen roses that were 100 to 150 years old in cemeteries, where I guarantee they don’t get any care.”

Martin peels off his polar fleece to reveal a bright-purple Huntington-issue polo shirt, then lops off a cane of First Kiss. He shows us how to find a bud eye, a swelling of new growth, which faces outward from the center of the bush, and how to cut above it. “You want to cut a quarter-inch to as-close-as-possible down behind the bud eye.”

Basic pruning consists of taking out old and dead canes and canes that cross over each other, plus removing all the leaves. It is not always clear which canes to remove, says Martin, because each rose has its own personality.

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