Mid-February Marks Rose Pruning Season

“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” Abraham Lincoln

Hopefully the worst of winter is behind us, although freezing weather (even snow) can occur anytime in the next several weeks. However, mid-February marks the beginning of the best time to prune roses in the Tyler area. The only exception to this practice would be with the pillar or climbing roses that bloom on last year’s growth and therefore should be pruned after the spring bloom. But the hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas, miniatures and shrub roses should all be pruned at this time.

Annual pruning is an important part of rose culture. Pruning produces healthier, more vigorous rose bushes with larger, more attractive blossoms. Pruning also makes your bushes more compact and easier to care for in the home garden. Pruning can also help reduce disease problems by improving air circulation and removing dead and diseased tissue.

Why prune roses at all? Rose bushes have grown for hundreds of years without such care. The answer is “quality of life,” not “requirement for survival.” Spring pruning improves the following plant characteristics:

* Health – by removing dead, damaged and diseased plant parts.

* Vigor – by removing “twiggy growth,” stems too small to produce and support a quality bloom, and encouraging vigorous, new growth.

* Structure – by giving the plant an uncluttered structure, free from rubbing canes and dense masses of foliage that reduce air circulation.

* Size – by trimming the plant to fit into a landscape scheme.

In Tyler, the right time for spring pruning is mid-February. This is often remembered as being associated with Valentine’s Day.

Begin with the proper tools. A pair of sharp bypass or scissor-type hand shears is a must. The anvil pruning shears, where one sharp blade makes contact with a flat opposing surface, will crush the cane left on the plant, allowing disease to enter the cane. A pair of loppers is also very helpful. Loppers give you the added strength and leverage to cut larger, older canes, and also the ability to reach in without getting torn up by the thorns.

All cuts should be made with sharp pruners. Dull pruners of any type make pruning difficult and also crush the cane as it is cut. Heavy work gloves and long sleeves are also recommended to avoid the getting stuck.

Before starting to prune, examine the plant and imagine what you want the plant to look like. As you begin to prune, first remove all dead, diseased or sickly wood. Sickly canes tend to have a yellowish-green or brownish-green cast on the outside and may be shriveled.

If you find two canes that are crossing and rubbing against each other, remove one of them.

Most rosarians won’t have objections to the above suggestions. However, when we come to “how to prune”, we come to a topic that evokes much friendly disagreement among gardeners. What follows are general guidelines that work for most rose growers.

First, make all cuts back to healthy wood. When making a “heading” cut (shortening the length of a cane), make the cut no more than ¼ inch above a bud or bud-eye, with pruners above the bud and sloping 45 degrees down and away from the bud. In other words, make a slanting cut, and don’t leave a stub (but don’t cut too close to the eye or bud either).

The height to which roses are pruned is a personal choice. Some rosarians prefer to leave as much healthy wood as possible, but most will cut their hybrid tea bushes back to 18 to 30 inches, or prune back one-third of their length each year. The miniature roses should be pruned back to about 12 inches.

Old garden or antique roses may need to be pruned a little differently, depending on the type and use in the garden. Some antiques and species roses are like some climbers – once bloomers – and should only be pruned after their glorious spring display. Others, such as rugosas and many species roses, may be best left unpruned to grow to their natural shape if the garden space will allow. Chinas and older hybrid teas should be pruned in much the same way as modern roses by removing twiggy, thin or dead wood and cutting back the stronger shoots to about one-third of their length each year, aiming if possible to encourage new shoots to emerge from near the base of the plant.

If your hybrid tea and grandiflora type roses have more than five canes remaining, cut out the other canes in the middle of the bush, flush with the enlarged graft union (for those types that are grafted). This will open up the middle of the plant, permitting better air circulation during the growing season.

Keith Mills, Grounds Maintenance Manger for the Caldwell Zoo, and former Tyler Rose Garden Supervisor, gave an excellent overview on pruning roses at the Spring Landscape and Garden Conference last Saturday, and he has provided a rose pruning guide which is available at EastTexasGardening.tamu.edu in the “Home Gardening” / “Landscape Plants” section.

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