Prune Those Roses

Wednesday, February 15, 2012
First, for those who don’t know, most roses do get pruned in mid-February. The ones that don’t get pruned are climbers and healthy, well-shaped Knockouts. Climbing roses that bloom once get pruned after flowering; reblooming climbers are pruned in fall. Knockouts that are overgrown can be lowered in height now but heavy pruning is not necessary or desirable. All the others get pruned now, even the ones that are still quite neat. I grow some truly antique roses like Clotilde Soupert, Archduke Charles, Nearly Wild, and Caldwell Pink, 20th century roses from the Meidilland group (I love the Fuchsia, but Cherry makes a great barrier plant with thorns that will rip you up), modern shrub roses from the Flower Carpet series including Amber and Red, and several bushes of the old tea rose, Aloha. I have one of James Mill’s wonderful roses, one David Austin, and one yellow floribunda. Ok, it’s an odd lot, and that doesn’t include the climbers. Each has something to recommend it and all must be pruned in the next week. Who knows? The winter has been so mild that the first spring flush of flowers might get here before the end of March. Rose pruning is a fine time to practice wearing garden gloves. I sport my scars and bad manicure almost proudly, no doubt to my late grandmother’s dismay. Her standards meant that we worked hard and tried our very best never to show it. That meant keeping even old shoes clean and shiny, snipping every pill off sweaters, and cleaning up the kitchen as you cooked. I was very young when I saw her pull her small frame out from under the sink where she was wrapping a pipe and comb her hair on the way to answer the front door before the bell rang twice. She wrapped garbage in newspaper to keep the can clean and get rid of the newsprint that piled up. (I should say that in those days there 2 full newspapers were delivered to the house each day, so they did pile up, unlike today.) Roses will hurt you, and you will react emotionally. Maybe you’ll quit the task, or cut them to the ground, and neither is a great idea. Get a good-fitting pair of supple gloves, wear long sleeves and long pants, even if it is 70 degrees the day you decide to prune roses. Here’s how I prune shrub roses: Cut the entire shrub rose down by half, or if it is particularly vigorous, by two-thirds, then select the canes you want to nurture. Choose 3 or 5 of the healthiest and remove oldest canes as well as those that are merely shoots. Cut the woody and weak canes down at ground level, leaving only the healthy 3-5. Clip off the twigs along the canes and some of the side branches. Like so many techniques, the way you prune makes a difference: try to cut above a bud that faces the outside of the plant to direct new growth, and slope cuts down and away from the plant’s center. That sends water away from the center of the plant right away and improves air circulation around each branch in the long term. If you grow hybrid tea roses, more power to you. I grew these beautiful specimens in the dry air of California, but even there I was unable to get into the routine of weekly sprays and the flowers suffered a bit. Breeders are making great strides in creating roses for the vase that grow on bushes that are more disease-resistant and I salute them. Once you have that pile of rose trimmings, it will no doubt occur to you to root some of them. Check out my Propagate This! Tip and click on through to the full blog at for my take on rooting roses from prunings.
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