Spring Pruning
by Mike Chute

Even though it’s February outside, the gardening juices are starting to flow and I feel my rose mojo rising. Warm weather last week melted most of the snow and I was able to walk through our rose gardens for the first time since Christmas. I saw little damage beyond a few broken canes. Observing roses without leaves, especially the big climbers, reveals structural flaws that can go unnoticed when the bushes are fully clothed in foliage. I made some mental notes to repair a couple of damaged bushes with careful pruning in April.

Spring pruning promotes healthy, attractive roses, increases flower production, and allows you to control the size or habit of the rose bush. Early season pruning begins at the end of dormancy in late winter. The bright yellow forsythia blossoms in April are Mother Nature’s bold announcement that spring is arriving. If the forsythia is blooming, then the soil temperature is warm enough to initiate plant growth. Timely spring pruning encourages new growth, especially from the bud union, and prepares rose bushes for a robust first bloom. Pruning too early, however, may subject the plants to damage from late season frosts or foul weather.

Cut 1/4" above bud eye

It does no harm to wait an extra week or two. Pruning tools include hand pruners – I like by-pass pruners with two curved blades that cut like a scissors; loppers for thicker canes; and pruning saws for gnarly, old woody canes. Sharp tools make nice clean cuts and that makes pruning easier and more enjoyable. Invest in a pair of thorn-proof leather gloves that protect your hands and wrists.

Pruning is not an exact science and is best learned through experience, but here are a few pointers to get you started. Begin by removing any dead canes. These are brown or black canes that should be pruned to the bud union or crown of the plant if necessary. Cut cleanly, leaving no stubs on which disease could grow later. Next, prune off any damaged or diseased wood. Inspect each cane for swollen bud eyes that indicate healthy tissue and cut a quarter inch above an outside facing bud eye. This encourages new stems to grow away from the center. Look for the pith or cross-section of the cut to resemble a freshly cut apple. If there is any brown staining in the pith, remove more of the cane. If there are any suckers – stems growing from the rootstock below the bud union – snip them off cleanly close to the rootstock.


Creamy White Pith

How a rose is pruned depends on the type of rose. In the case of hybrid teas and grandifloras, cut back any winter damaged, dead or diseased canes. This pruning may be radical and it will take some courage for novice rose gardeners to keep cutting to find that creamy pith. If there is uncertainty where to make the cuts, first prune carefully, then go back and re-prune two weeks later. The emerging new growth will make pruning decisions easier. Open the center of the plant, allowing in light and air, by cutting away any weak, twiggy growth and removing any crossing canes. Finally, shape the plant, keeping three to six canes.
Leave more wood on floribundas by cutting the bush back no more than one third, thinning out the center and shaping the bush. Here we are looking for a mass display of color – more canes mean more blooms.
Climbing roses are pruned differently. Other than the removal of dead, damaged or diseased canes, prune climbers very lightly. Many climbing varieties bloom on old wood and careless spring pruning eliminates canes before they can flower. Prune conservatively and train the growing canes horizontally on arbors, garden structures and along fences. The horizontal nature enhances the development of lateral shoots and these are the major flower producers on climbing roses. Keeping the laterals properly deadheaded all summer will keep the blooms coming. In the case of once-blooming varieties, prune right after the bloom cycle goes by, usually by early July. The subsequent new growth will be next year’s roses.
Shrub roses and old garden roses, including species roses, are pruned in moderation. Once any dead, damaged or diseased wood is removed, shape the bushes leaving them full and natural-looking but take no more than a third away. On mature bushes, occasionally eliminate a few older, woody canes to stimulate new growth. Like climbers, prune once-bloomers as soon as the flowering is done.
Miniature roses can be pruned carefully like hybrid teas or just thinned boldly by removing half the stems with hedge clippers and fine-tuning with hand pruners. Six weeks later you won’t be able to tell the difference.
Some rose gardeners recommend white glue or other sealers to cover the pruning cuts as a defense against disease and insects invading the plant. Others, including myself, do not. It is messy, leaves the garden looking unsightly and is not really necessary. The roses don’t suffer beyond the occasional cane borer drilling into a convenient cane, which eventually gets pruned out anyway.

Finish by cleaning up the beds and discarding all the garden debris.

Nothing is more spectacular than a garden of well-tended roses in full flush and that starts with careful pruning in early spring.