Every February 14th, lovers around the world exchange candy, jewelry, cards – and flowers on Valentine’s Day (also known as Saint Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine). Roses have been an enduring symbol of love and beauty since the ancient Greeks and Romans associated them with Aphrodite and Venus, the goddess(es) of love, which may be why they are a favorite Valentine’s Day flower.
Jennifer Potter, author of Seven Flowers and How They Shaped our World, writes that “…the flower (rose) itself has evolved over the millennia from a simple briar of the northern hemisphere to today’s sumptuous garden queen, bred for beauty, strength, fragrance and charm …”. All this breeding has produced a dizzying array of roses: Bourbon, China, English, Floribunda, Gallica, Moss, Musk, Noisette, Polyantha, Rugosa and Tea – to name just a few.
Even the most confident gardener is intimidated by the thought of pruning roses. I suspect they’ve been listening to rose “experts” who treat pruning roses as a sacred ritual with an overwhelming number of rules. Forget all that and remember this: a healthy rose bush is forgiving and even if you make mistakes, like poorly-trimmed bangs it will grow back (although it will be awkward for a while).
The purpose of pruning is to remove dead, damaged or diseased canes, shape the plant, create an open center to increase air circulation and light penetration, and encourage vigorous growth and a heavier crop of flowers.
Ever-blooming roses such as hybrid teas, floribundas and Knock Out roses bloom repeatedly through the summer and fall, and bear flowers on new growth (the branches and shoots that sprout during the current year). In McKinney, the best time to prune these types of roses is in February. This is when the buds have sprouted and the new shoots are a ½” to 1” long. Since these roses will go into a mini-dormancy during the extreme heat and humidity of summer, they benefit from another light pruning in late summer to enhance fall flowering.
Heirloom roses and species roses that bloom once in the spring bear flowers on old growth (branches formed the previous year). With once-blooming roses limit February pruning to the removal of the three D’s: dead, damaged or diseased canes. The remainder of pruning can be postponed until immediately after flowering.
Roses fall into one of two groups: shrub roses and climbing roses. Shrub roses have rounded and compact clusters of stems. Climbing roses have long, flexible canes that are trained onto a trellis or along a fence. Some varieties, like hybrid musk roses, can belong to either group; in which case the way you prune will determine what it becomes.
The most important fact to remember about pruning is that it stimulates the growth the bud just below the cut. Making cuts just above buds that face outward from the bush’s center, encourages the rose to produce a bushier, healthier framework of branches.
How to prune a shrub rose:
1. Pull on a pair of leather gauntlets (gloves with long cuffs to protect the forearms) and assemble sharp bypass shears, a lopper and a pruning saw.
2. Remove dead, damaged, crossing or diseased branches. Dead branches are easy to spot because they are brown and don’t have any shoots emerging from them. Cut them to the ground, or to live wood. Canes that are broken, or whose bark has been scraped by rubbing against another branch should be cut to the ground. Canes that are crossing can cause damage that introduces disease; remove one of the offenders. Blotches of brown (often with a purple halo) spreading over green bark indicates a fungal disease called canker. Cut well below the lowermost canker.
3. Remove canes that are smaller than the diameter of a pencil.
4. If the rose is grafted and has sucker growth, dig down to where it originates and tear off the sucker (cutting it will encourage more sucker growth).
5. Prune the healthy canes to half their size, aiming for a nice rounded shape.
How to prune a climbing rose:
Follow 1. and 2. above. Most climbing roses are once-bloomers. Stop here and postpone the following steps until after blooming.
3. Remove one old cane each year by cutting it off at the base with a pair of lopping shears; then use the pruning saw to remove the stub. You can identify this cane because it will be brown and woody and will have produced few flowers.
4. Shorten the secondary branches (those that have sprouted from the long, upright canes) by 1/3 to ½.
5. Remove any excess upright canes such as those sprouting from the base or excess growth on a major cane.
6. Tie young, flexible canes loosely to the supporting structure.
When pruning, take the time to evaluate every cut. When pruning multiple rose plants, clean your clippers (with a quick dip in isopropyl alcohol) before moving on to the next plant to avoid the transmission of disease.
There are differing opinions about sealing cut stems. Because a cut can allow rose cane borers to enter the plant, many rose growers feel a cut should be sealed as soon as it is made. Common sealants are rose paste, shellac and nail polish. If you choose to seal cuts, try white glue; it can be easily squeezed out and dries clear.
Follow these simple pruning steps and keep your roses looking their best. Happy Valentine’s Day!
The rose photos were taken this past Fall, 2017 when I was on a garden research tour of Ireland, England and Scotland. These roses were in the Glebe House Garden in the Cotswolds, England.