If you feel intimidated by the thought of tackling the job of pruning your roses, don’t be. In the words of the celebrated southern gardener and author Felder Rushing, “you can prune roses with a chainsaw or a herd of deer.” So grab some sharp by-pass pruners (I love my Felcos) and put on your rose gloves (unless you want to look like you fended off a pack of hungry stray cats) and we’ll get started.
Why prune my roses? Pruning allows you to maintain a rose at a desirable shape and size to compliment your garden. It encourages healthy plants by removing the dreaded 3-D’s (damaged, diseased, & dead canes). It increases air circulation within the plants, thus reducing the likelihood of common fungal diseases. And pruning encourages new growth and prolific blooms. With me so far?
When do I prune my roses? Ah, the eternal gardening question. The general rule is as follows: if your rose blooms on last season’s growth, then prune immediately after flowering; if it blooms on new growth, then prune in late winter/early spring (when the Forsythia begins to bloom). For example, modern repeat-bloom roses (i.e. the wonderful Knock Out series) as well as floribundas bloom on new wood, so prune them in late February/early March down to about ½ to 2/3 of the plant’s height, leaving 3-5 healthy canes evenly spaced around the plant. Hybrid teas and grandifloras also bloom on new growth, so prune hard (down to about 24 inches) in early spring to create an open vase shape by removing some of the center canes and any branches crossing inward. In contrast, some of the older varieties of once-blooming climbers (i.e. Lady Banks) and old-fashioned shrub roses bloom on old wood and should be pruned in early to midsummer after they flower.
How do I get started? Begin with clean sharp pruners and begin pruning from the base of the plant, keeping an eye on the overall shape. Prune to open the center of the plant and to remove the 3D’s mentioned above. Cut at a 45 degree angle (so moisture does not collect) above a bud that is facing the outside of the plant (so new growth will not be toward the center of the plant). Remove any thin twiggy branches that are thinner than a pencil. Finally, remove any suckers, the rootstock shoots that appear to grow out of the ground below the graft.
What if I mess up? Luckily, roses tend to be resilient and forgiving plants. Keep a garden journal so you will remember what works and what does not for each of your roses. Pruning roses may be part science part art, but it is all part of the joy of gardening so relax and have some fun out there in the sunshine!