Prune and rejuvenate your roses


Pruning roses can seem like a mystery, especially if you have never done it before.

It’s one thing to read about pruning in a book, but you have to actually get out there and see it being done, and then do it, to learn what pruning is all about.

You are not going to kill your rose bush

With the exception of lopping off your rose bush at ground level, there is practically nothing you can do that will kill your rose bush when pruning. If your rose is not grafted onto rootstock and is growing on its own roots, so it would probably still send up some new canes.

What does “hard” pruning mean?

Since my hybrid teas, or HTs, grow to heights of 5 or 6 and sometimes 7 feet, hard pruning for me would mean 2 feet tall. But my neighbor’s roses are new bushes of different varieties than mine, so his only grow 4 feet tall. For him, hard pruning might mean 1 foot tall.

The meaning of “hard” is only relative to what your situation is. Here in Southern California, I rarely hard prune my roses and, when I do, only on a very selective basis, for a rose that needs to be rejuvenated.

Most of my HTs end up at 3 to 4 feet tall after being pruned in the winter. You do not need to prune hard in Southern California. But of course, we don’t want you to lop off your roses at ground level. You don’t even need to prune your roses hard as they sometimes instruct you to do in the rose books. If you lived in the very cold regions of the United States, such as the Midwest and Northeast, you might need to prune your bushes hard, but this isn’t necessary in Southern California.

You don’t need to prune down to the best 3-5 canes

The rose-pruning books lead you to believe that every rose bush needs to be pruned to exactly 3 or 5 canes. That is nonsense.

Of course, your new bareroot roses will probably arrive with only 3 to 5 canes, but established rose bushes will have many more canes than that, and it would be horribly sad to cut off all those bloom producing canes.

I keep all the newest, greenest canes, and this could mean 12 or more depending on the variety and the age of the rose bush. Do get rid of all those very old, brown or dead canes. You want to encourage new, green basal canes to grow.

All roses are not created equal

Hybrid teas, floribundas, shrubs, climbers, old garden roses and miniatures are all different types of roses. They each need to be pruned differently depending on their size. You can’t just lop them off at the same height. Each bush has its own unique personality, and therefore needs to be pruned accordingly. Even roses of the same type need to be pruned individually. For example, you might have a hybrid tea that usually grows very tall and another one that grows very short. You would not prune both of these hybrid teas the same way, as one you would prune shorter and the other one you would prune taller.

You don’t need to spend hours agonizing

If you’re spending more than 15 minutes pruning a large hybrid tea, you are spending too much time on it. A miniature should take no more than 5 minutes.

For minis, we simply use large, scissor-type hedge trimmers. A couple of large whacks does the trick, and then we do a little detail work on the individual canes. A climber or old garden rose could take a bit longer, simply because they are larger and may need to be selectively pruned and perhaps trained or pegged.

Do I really need to remove all the leaves?

No, you don’t have to. Your rose bush will not die or suffer if you don’t. If you have a lot of roses and are really pinched for time, you could skip this step.

However, removing all the foliage from a rose bush when it is being pruned in the winter or early spring serves many purposes that is good for your roses.

First, stripping off all the leaves and discarding them helps to control insects and diseases. It’s the only time of the year when you can start anew. Removing the foliage encourages the new canes to grow, and all the old foliage you leave on will eventually die anyway.

Do I have to seal the ends of the canes after pruning?

No, you don’t have to. With nearly 300 rose bushes, I do not seal the canes anymore, since it’s a tremendous amount of work and very time-consuming. I rarely see cane-borer damage, but it is so minimal that it is not worth the time it takes to seal the ends of the canes of all my roses. You can do it if you have nothing better to do, but it isn’t necessary. Do I really need to prune my roses? If you really want to grow great roses, yes, you need to. But don’t make it into a bigger and more complicated project than it really is. The idea is to rejuvenate your roses.

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