Rose Pruning 101

Did I just say February was around the corner? I did! Late February is rose pruning time and a lot of first time homeowners who bought that cute pink rose last summer will ignore pruning and end up with a much larger rose bush this coming summer – and, I might add, fewer blooms. Why prune a rose bush?

Does your rose bush look like this? Time for pruning!

Several reasons for pruning exist and they are all valid. One – pruning gets rid of dead wood that might harbor mites, a virus, or some fungus that will not be good for the future health of your roses. Second – pruning stimulates new growth and roses bloom on this year’s growth and why did you plant the rose in the first place? Blooms! Third – roses grow quickly and last year’s unpruned branches will sprout a new groups of branches and before you can say “Abracadabra” three times, your little rose bush has outgrown its original location and is sending its thorny arms across your sidewalk, up your house, and all over your other planting area.

What tools will you need? A decent set of pruning shears that should be sharpened with a file every so often. A good clean cut is essential. Before you cut, spray the cutting edge with Lysol or a good disinfectant to keep bacteria and mite transmission from one plant to another to a minimum. Most people don’t do that and then see their rose bush fade in the heat of summer due to a widespread fungus or bacteria infection. Be cautious! Heavy lobbers may be necessary if you have some large dead limbs at the bottom of your bush.

Tools of the pruning trade. Add a spray bottle of Lysol to the mix and spray the tool blades every six cuts or so. File the blades if they are dull.

Where do you begin? Before you cut a single stem, stand back and take a long look. Are the bottom thick with suckers that restrict air flow? Do you want to better shape your bush? Do you see sprouts emerging along the stems? Do you see any diseased stems?

I like to start at the bottom and remove any dead wood first. Start two piles of discards. One for trash to be burned or discarded and one for good looking cut stems that might generate a new plant. Remove the dead stems as close to the surface as you can and many rose experts say to touch the remaining cut with Elmer’s Wood Glue to prevent infestation by insects or mites. How many stems are left at the bottom? A dozen? Two dozen? This will be hard to swallow but a good goal is perhaps six. Don’t be shy. Your rose bush will not bleed or call for help with a furtive scream but it will prick you so wear good gloves.

If your goal is control and a maximum of blossoms two months from now, pick your healthiest looking stems and don’t cut them at the bottom. If any small suckers are present, get rid of them. If you have a long green stem with few or no leaf sprouts – cut it. If a stem crosses over the center of the bush to emerge from the other side – cut it. The goal is 4 to 8 healthy stems emerging from the bottom with an open space in the middle for good air circulation. Without air circulation, stems and dead leaves collect and hold moisture providing holding areas for insects, mold, and mildew.

Now we need to work on the remaining main stems. These will be the basis for your shape, growth, and blooming pattern. Pick your first stem. Does it branch into a dozen smaller branches? Prune below that branching but above a set emerging leaves. Some like to prune at an angle some don’t. To me an angle is a bigger space for bugs to enter so I prune straight across to minimize the cut. I am not sure it makes a difference. I would cut the stem from one to two feet above the ground. Pretty severe, I know, but roses can grow six foot a year and they will. Do the same for the other major stems just above a leaf sprouting node. Now you should have a relatively bare bush but believe me, it will come back with a vengeance.

Looks bare – but stand back for a growth explosion. While your on your knees, get rid of any weeds and grass and old leaves. Lightly fertilize and use mulch to conserve moisture.

Clean up all your cut stems, old leaves, and any other organic material that could hide an aphid or a mite. Check your green stem pile you accumulated and clip the top six inches off each stem about two inches below a set of emerging leaves. Stick the two inch bottom in a bottle of rooting hormone than carefully place it in a pot or deep dish baking pan filled with a good, moist potting soil. Keep it moist and in light and you may find yourself a proud parent of a new rose bush in a few months – or maybe not. It is hit or miss and if you want to try propagation, then review the collection of rose videos on YouTube. I will try and get several dozen new plants out of the eleven roses I am currently growing.

Knockout Roses in May after a severe pruning in early February.

Starting next week, I am going to prune one bush every 3 days or so and keep a mental record as to its final growth and blooming pattern. Don’t forget to lightly fertilize in March – too much and you will get a lot of leaves. I will take pictures and write more as I start the pruning process.

Knockout roses on the sunny side of the fence.

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