At this time of year, January and February, people frequently ask me about pruning. Apparently, people think I’m an expert in this simply due to my position as Curator of the Heritage Rose Garden. They obviously haven’t seen my roses at home. Well, I have learned a lot about pruning, but seldom put it into practice. But I might as well tell what I know, for the benefit of those who are afraid they will do it incorrectly, and harm their plants. So this is a how to prune for the totally timid living in mild winter areas of the US.
A few preliminary remarks. Roses don’t care if you prune them or not. We find very old roses in cemeteries and old properties that haven’t been pruned in decades. They are perfectly healthy plants. So pruning is not done for the plant’s benefit, but for our benefit. We want it to look good, produce a lot of bloom, and not attack neighboring plants or passers-by. And we don’t want our pruning efforts to harm the plants. So those are the things I’ll discuss. The specifics of how to cut, tools to use, where to make cuts- that’s all in many books, and I’m going to assume you either have that information, or a library card. You can also use Google images for Rose pruning.
Different classes of roses get pruned at different times. Once bloomers get pruned after blooming. Unless you want hips. When the hips stop looking good, or you have harvested them for jam or tea, just lightly do some clean-up pruning. That means cut off where the hips were to the next leaflet down or where new leaves are forming, and trim back new growth that is going where you don’t want it. And cut off diseased or dead stuff.
Repeat bloomers can be pruned anytime after their last bloom of the year until they leaf out for the new year’s bloom. Roughly November till February. Except Teas. Some people confuse the terms ‘Tea’ and ‘Hybrid Tea’, so first I’ll define them. Tea roses are heirloom roses mainly bred in the 1800s. Hybrid Teas are modern roses. Many people think those dainty, small, long-stemmed roses from the florist on Valentine’s Day are Tea roses but they are not. They are just small-flowered Hybrid Teas. Teas only need light pruning to produce lots of bloom, and it can be done while dead-heading. Just cut back to shape the plant while cutting off the spent flowers, and you don’t really have to do dormant pruning on them.
What to Prune in Repeat Blooming Roses, other than Teas
First, you need to remove dead branches and canes. You don’t need to wait till pruning season to do that. Do it any time you see it. Normally you cut below the bottom of the dead part in healthy wood, but there are a few roses where you will get more die-back below the cut after cutting off the dead part. I have a couple of roses like that. For those, I cut into the dead wood, about a quarter-inch above the bottom of the dead wood, or cut off the branch or cane completely. That seems to work fine in my case. If anyone has experience and wishes to comment on this type of problem, please enlighten the rest of us.
Second is overall shape and height. We generally cut off about the top third of the plant. More if it’s been allowed to get way too big, less if it’s close to the desired height already, and none if it’s still young and hasn’t reached the desired height. Shape: If a branch or cane is going where we don’t want it to go, we cut it back. If a cane or branch starts on one side of the plant and crosses to the other side, we don’t want it to do that, so we cut it back to its own side, just above an outward facing bud-eye. If two branches cross and rub each other, that’s not healthy, so at least one needs to be cut back below the crossing point. Or both if the skin is damaged. If there are too many branches starting at one point on a cane, we cut back to one or two.
Paul Zimmerman has produced quite a few rose care videos and has a YouTube channel. This one is a good place to start:
Once you are there, you will see other videos that are follow-ups to this one, and you can see other topics that may be of interest as well.
There is also a video by Beverly Rose Hopper, showing how she prunes modern roses for maximum bloom:
Now that you have dealt with dead and diseased wood, and pruned back to the right height and shape, you probably see some scraggly bits, and don’t know what to do about them. If you want to quit now, for fear of cutting off too much, you can. But there are probably still some small branches that aren’t really strong enough to hold up a flower. You can cut them off. ( I tend to nibble away at spindly stuff till I think it looks right. ) Then you can decide whether to keep all the remaining canes or remove some. This decision must be made one plant at a time. If all the canes are fairly old and woody, with no sturdy young canes, you’ll want to stimulate it to produce more young ones. (Unless it’s a Tea. They often produce as many canes as they ever will in the first few years, and nothing you do will stimulate it to produce a new one. That’s another reason we don’t prune them much. They may not recover from too much pruning.) I’ve been told that the way to stimulate growth of new canes in modern roses is to severely prune back some of the old canes each year, and feed the plant alfalfa pellets. If the plant doesn’t put out a new cane or two, then prune farther the next year. It will eventually put out a new cane or die. Then you can put in a healthy new rose.
If there are at least 3 young sturdy canes, you can remove at least one old woody cane. Consider the overall shape and appearance of the plant in deciding how many old canes to remove. Sometimes all the young ones are on one side and all the old ones on the other. You don’t want it too lopsided. At the Heritage Rose Garden, we often confer about how much old wood to remove from a plant, often taking out one or two old canes this year, leaving some old ones for next year. If the plant has just younger canes, how many should you leave? Again, this decision must be made one plant at a time. If they are equally spaced, and not at odd angles, you can leave them all. If some seem too crowded, you can remove ones that are too close to others until it’s better balanced.
The important thing is to learn from your experience: What are the results of your pruning? Did you get better bloom the year after pruning than you did before? Did you get dieback on any plants? Take pictures of locations on a plant where you’re not sure you pruned it right. Then check during bloom season and see the results. If you need advice, you can put those pictures on a photo sharing site like Flickr, Picasa or Photobucket. Then ask on a forum or Facebook for help.