Pruning Roses by PJ LaRue Smith
What is the purpose behind pruning roses? To improve the health and vigor of the bush by removing dead, diseased, damaged, or unproductive canes and opening the bush up to allow for air flow in order to assist in natural disease prevention. Understanding these two primary purposes can act as a guide in the technical part of pruning roses.
Some exceptions to pruning a rose bush need to be mentioned before proceeding. If the bush only blooms on old wood (i.e. blooms once a year in the spring or summer) then it is NOT to be pruned until AFTER it blooms). Healthy wood (a creamy white color on the inside) on repeat blooming climbers should be pruned lightly. Old garden roses (OGRs) and Shrub roses should be pruned lightly as well.
Before making the first cut on any bush, assemble the necessary equipment. Standard rose pruning equipment includes, but is not limited to: (a) sharp pair of BY-PASS pruners (not the anvil type that tends to crush the canes); (b) solid leather thorn-proof gloves (no part of which should be cloth); (c) either a pruning saw, or sharp pair of long-handled, BY-PASS loppers (to trim away large diameter canes); (d) trash can for debris (both what has been cut off and what may be lying below the plant); (e) good whet stone to keep the pruners/loppers sharp (dull blades damage canes and tend to be a hazard for the operator); (f) appropriate footwear for working in the garden (sandals and flip-flops don’t protect from thorns, ants, or the accidentally dropped pair of pruners); (g) long-sleeved shirt and jeans (did I mention roses have thorns?); and (h) stocked first-aid kit (complete with tweezers for picking out the “thorn in the flesh”).
“How to cut” requires a little rose anatomy lesson and remembering the second purpose listed above. In order to “open up the bush” one has to cut above an outward facing bud eye. Since there are likely no leaves left, this would be where the leaves were attached. This looks like a little smile with a nose above it. New growth will originate from the “nose” of the bud eye and grow in the direction it is pointing. If the bud eye faces the inside of the bush, then that is the direction it will grow. Cutting to an inside facing bud eye will close up the bush instead of opening it up. The cut should be approximately 1/4” above the bud eye at a 45° angle with the peak above the bud eye.
Climate determines the best time to prune roses in the spring. For the north Hunt County area, this would be the end of the first week in March, for the southern half of the county, around the first of March. Understand that these are general dates, and if you haven’t yet pruned the garden’s roses this spring, the window is still open to do so. Be sure to remove and dispose of (not in the compost pile) all trimmed material and any leaves or rose pieces on the ground as they can harbor disease and insect pests.
At the time of pruning, fertilize the roses lightly (per soil testing), add more mulch as needed, and begin the year’s spray program for disease if you are so inclined. The fungicides that are available to the home gardener are preventative, not curative, and must be applied prior to the outbreak of disease. If spraying is begun at pruning time, and old diseased plant parts are removed from around the bushes, the incidence of disease can be significantly lowered.
PJ LaRue Smith is a master gardener in Hunt County.