Pruning Roses- How, When & Why

 

Mixed rose bouquet
Mixed rose bouquet

In between storms I’m itching to get outside and do something in the garden. It’s too early to cut back the perennials as some frosty nights are sure to come our way between now and mid-March. But it’s just the right time to start pruning the roses. It’s best to prune your roses before they start leafing out or some of their energy will be wasted.

Last year, mine were looking just fine in January, thank you very much, so I thought I’d skip the pruning and removing last year’s leaves. Boy, what a mistake. Oh they looked great in January and February when there was no precipitation. Then some rain fell in March. I’m not kidding when I tell you that every single leaf got black spot and rust. My rose varieties are usually resistant to disease but they could not fight back against the fungal spores lurking in the soil just waiting to colonize those old leaves.

Yellow fragrant rose
Yellow fragrant rose

Roses give so much back I think they are worth the extra mulch and a little extra water to keep them producing those lovely blooms. There’s nothing quite as dramatic as a mixed bouquet of scented roses on the table.

I want my rose bushes to produce lots of roses on a compact shrub and not just a few exhibition size blooms so I prune my shrubs moderately. My goal is to keep the center of the plant open for good air circulation aiming for a vase-shaped bush with an open center. I’ll cut out canes that cross, saving the better of the two, prune spindly and diseased stems and dead wood. I’ll also prune canes that appear weak or broken. Healthy canes appear green or reddish while old and dying canes are brown. Then I’ll cut back the remaining stems by about third. When pruning cut canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing leaf bud or a swelling on the cane. Slant the cut away from the bud to encourage growth outward. Clean pruners afterward to prevent the spread of disease and keep your pruners sharp to make clean cuts.

Same goes for climbing roses. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

Bouquet of mixed roses
Bouquet of mixed roses

Heirlooms roses such as David Austin, other old antique garden roses, and floribunda roses require less pruning because their open look is part of their charm. Keep this in mind and prune lightly. Old garden roses that bloom once in the spring should be pruned after flowering.

I got off easy this year as one of my roses was pruned and de-leafed by a deer who got inside the fence one night but the others are getting pruned the right way and at the right time. I know those old leaves will spread fungus spores and possibly infect the new growth so I’ll patiently pluck them off.  If you have a huge climber this might not be possible and spraying with fungicide may be your only option if you’ve had disease problems in the past. Rake up the debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It’s a good idea to spray the bare plant, coating the trunk, branches and twigs and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur or copper soap to kill fungus spores. If you usually only have problems with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light horticultural oil in 1 quart water and spray every 7 to 10 days during the spring.

Pruning intimidates some gardeners but when you understand the reasons for making the cuts pruning becomes less daunting. The reasons to prune are for health, appearance and to control size.

Prune your roses throughout the growing season, too. Deadheading or cutting off spent flowers encourages plants to re-bloom. Every time you cut a rose bloom to bring it indoors or deadhead a fading rose prune the stem down to shape the plant at the same time. Prune to a spot that has at least 5 leaflets. Roses grow from the point where they are cut so consider the overall shape of the plant as you snip.

Don’t worry whether you’re pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can always trim them up again later. Roses are like redwoods -you can’t kill one- they’re the energizer bunnies of the plant world.