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How To Prune Roses – The ‘Queen of Flowers’

How To Prune Roses – The ‘Queen of Flowers’

You don’t have to prune roses but if you choose not to you invariably end up with a tangled mass of growth and fewer flowers. By cutting away older, worn out and possibly diseased growth you can promote vigorous, disease-free new growth and many more flowers which in my opinion is well worth the effort. It is also always a good idea to follow some general pruning techniques in order to get the best results. Firstly always use sharp, clean secateurs and loppers so that the resulting cuts are also neat and clean. There are basically two types of secateurs/lopper- the Parrot Beak and the Anvil types. Parrot Beak or By-pass tools use a scissor-like action and have curved blades, the sharp, upper, convex blade cutting against the lower, concave blade to give a really clean and precise cut. Anvil secateurs and loppers have a straight-edged, upper blade that cuts against a square-edged, lower anvil or block. For me the Parrot Beak gives a much cleaner cut especially on softer growth and I only use the anvil types on dead wood or for chopping up already pruned material. Some secateurs and loppers also have a ratchet system which makes the cutting of thicker, tougher stems much easier and are therefore great for those of us with weaker hands and muscles! Most secateurs will happily cut stems up to half an inch (1 cm) thick with long handled loppers being necessary for anything thicker. A second useful principle to follow is to remove first all dead, diseased and damaged stems as well as any which are crossing and rubbing by cutting back to healthy growth below. This allows you to get a better view of the remaining plant before you decide on what and where to prune next. Pruning of live, healthy growth should be done starting about a quarter of an inch (0.5 cms) above a bud or ‘eye’ with a downward sloping cut on the opposite side of the stem to the bud. This means that you will not damage the bud by cutting too close to it, nor will you leave an ugly stub which will die back and possibly introduce disease and also any water will be shed by the cut sloping away from the bud. It is also a good idea to select an outward facing bud so that the new stem grows away from the centre of the plant preventing the centre from becoming too congested. Suckers on roses which are growing from the rootstock onto which the rose was grafted should, if possible, be pulled away rather than pruned off to help prevent them from re-appearing. If left these suckers will produce growth and flowers which are not the same as the rose which you started with so it is important to remove them as soon as you see them. We inherited a rose in our front garden which had been left to sucker and now we have two different types of flower on it each year, a simple, white wild rose flower which produces lovely hips and a larger, pink flower from the original rose. We actually like them both and will let them do their own thing until the wild rose eventually takes over. My final general principle for rose pruning is to avoid putting any rose cuttings onto the compost heap. Apart from the obvious problem of having thorns in the compost, it is not a good idea as rose cuttings, or at least some of them, are quite likely to be carrying diseases such as rust and blackspot. It is therefore much better to burn such material or to take it for green waste recycling where it is finely shredded and composted at much higher temperatures than can be generated in a garden setting which deals with any unwanted problems.

As with all types of pruning getting the timing right is very important and we are now just into the main pruning period for roses hence this blog. From mid-February to mid-March depending on location and weather conditions the buds on roses, along with many other plants, will be beginning to swell and this is the ideal time to remove the top growth which is not required before too much plant energy is wasted on growth that is not wanted. However, this is not the only time of the year for rose pruning. Throughout the flowering season which really gets going in June it is always a good idea to dead head spent flowers unless the plant produces attractive hips. This will keep the plant looking at its best as well as encouraging more flowers to form. Rambling roses also need to be pruned in the late summer- more on this later. Finally in November long growth on roses such as Climbers and the taller Floribundas need to be shortened to avoid wind damage over the winter.

The exact method of rose pruning in February and March really depends on the type of rose to be pruned although all the basic principles still apply. Just to confuse matters there are about a hundred naturally occurring species roses as well as many natural hybrids growing in the wild. In addition after 2000 years of rose cultivation, rose cultivars now number in their thousands and their ancestry is so mixed after centuries of cross-breeding that it is impossible to classify them precisely. However, you will be relieved to know that is possible to identify the main groups which require slightly different pruning methods and that even if you think you don’t know which group your rose falls into its growth habit and flowers will tell you.

Let’s start with the very popular and well known Hybrid Tea roses which are now more correctly referred to as ‘Large-flowered Bush’ roses. These are upright, repeat flowering shrubs with large flowers generally carried one to each stem. They flower on the current season’s growth and need to be pruned quite hard in order to give a good supply of new young shoots which will produce flowers that year. After dealing with any dead, diseased or damaged wood the strongest, thickest stems should be pruned to about 9” (20 cms) from the ground and the weaker shoots to about 6” (15 cms) from the base always remembering to prune back to just above an outward facing bud. This may seem the wrong way round but just remember that pruning in the winter or early spring stimulates strong, new growth and the harder pruning of the weaker stems will help them catch up with their larger neighbours. Some stems may also have laterals (side shoots) which should be pruned back to 4-6” from the main stem. You will end up with a very short but healthy shrub with lots of buds ready to produce new flowering shoots.

Next comes the Floribunda group which has also been renamed as ‘Cluster-flowered Bush’ roses. These are generally more vigorous than the Hybrid Teas and as the new name suggests they produce clusters of flowers on each stem. As they are vigorous growers they don’t need to be pruned quite so hard with the strongest stems being pruned to around 18” (45 cms) from the ground and the weaker stems to 12” (30 cms) again after removing all the dead, diseased and damaged parts.

A third group which has become much more popular in recent years are the Patio or ‘Dwarf Clustered-flowered’ roses. These only grow to around 2 feet high and are ideal for patio pots or the front of beds and borders. Like the first two groups they flower on the current season’s wood so need to be pruned quite hard to encourage lots of new shoots. Established plants should be pruned to 4-6” (10-15 cms) from the base.

Another group which has grown in popularity recently is the Ground Cover group which is often referred to as the ‘Flower Carpet’ roses. These are low growing and spreading in habit and are great for providing blocks of colour as well as helping to supress other plant growth. They tend to be very thorny and as such are not the easiest plant to prune. If it is possible it is a good idea as always to remove the dead, diseased and damaged growth first to reduce the tangle of stems and then to shorten all main stems by about a third  and side shoots to 2-3” (5-8 cms). If you can’t face this prickly task then you can resort to simply clipping with shears or hedge trimmer, again reducing all growth by about a third.

Standard roses are perhaps less popular than they once were but are still useful in patio pots and garden beds to create height and interest. They are normally either Hybrid Tea or Floribunda roses grafted onto the top of a more vigorous stem and rootstock. They again flower on the current year’s growth and need to be pruned moderately hard to prevent them from becoming top heavy. Pruning should be done around 6-9” (15-20 cms) above the grafting point. The graft should be fairly obvious as it is usually quite swollen and the growth above and below it will be different in both colour and texture. Any shoots growing from the stem below the graft should be treated the same as suckers from the roots ie. pulled or rubbed off rather than pruned.

You might be pleased to hear that the next group of roses require less pruning than those mentioned so far! These are the Shrub and Species roses, in which I would include the now very popular David Austin bush roses. These can be left unpruned but will generally produce fewer flowers as the years go by so I prefer to use the following light pruning method. With a young plant try to build up a sturdy framework of well-spaced stems by removing thin, weak growth after flowering and any dead and diseased wood as seen. Then in February/March each year just prune all the main shoots and laterals by a few inches. Removing the terminal or apical buds encourages the buds lower down to grow and to produce new laterals which will flower that year and at the same time produce a bushier plant.

All the above roses are in the overall group of Modern Garden roses but there is another group, the Old Garden roses. These include such roses as the Bourbons, Damasks, Gallicas, Mosses and Noisettes amongst many others. They are all beautiful roses, if quite different to each other, and if you are lucky enough to have one or more or can source them then I suggest that you research the pruning technique required for your particular rose via the internet, specialised book or the grower.

We now come to the taller roses which naturally produce long shoots which can be tied onto structures such as obelisks, wires on fences and walls, pergolas and arches or even allowed to scramble through trees or over buildings. They fall into one of two groups- Climbers and Ramblers– which unfortunately require different types of pruning. However, they are fairly easy to distinguish even if you don’t have a label so don’t worry! Climbers like the bush roses which we have discussed so far flower on the current year’s growth, bear flowers either singly or in clusters and repeat flower through the summer and autumn. These are the roses that are used to cover structures which are around 6-10 feet (2-3m) in height such as fences, pergolas and obelisks. Unlike the bush roses, however, they need a framework of stems which is tied into the supporting structure and from which flowering laterals grow. This framework is built up over a few years by tying in the elongating  shoots as they grow during the summer. Depending on the supporting structure they can be tied in vertically, at an angle or even horizontally but just bear in mind that the nearer they are to the horizontal the more flowers you will get. In February/March the task is to firstly check the ties on the main stems and to add more if necessary, to prune the ends of any of these long shoots which have reached the limit of the support and then to prune all the laterals to about 6” (15 cms) from the main stems. The flowers will form on the new growth which will come from these laterals with a few more coming from the tips of the long shoots. In old plants it is also possible to prune one or two of the oldest, exhausted stems right back to within a foot or so of the ground. This sounds rather drastic but it will encourage new, strong, framework shoots to grow from the base to replace the ones removed.

 Rambling roses are even more vigorous than Climbers and as such are generally the ones which cover high walls, whole buildings and trees. They bear small blooms in large clusters which are generally white and come in the early summer- June and early July. Some repeat flower but most do not and as such are fairly easy to distinguish from the Climbers. This is just as well as they require a different method and timing of pruning as they flower on wood produced in previous years and not on the current year’s growth. Any pruning in February/March would result in the loss of many if not all of the flowering shoots so must be avoided. If you have just realised that you have a Rambling rose then don’t be tempted to prune it at this time of year and just look forward to enjoying it in the early summer. You can, however, tie in any long shoots that you see and apply a mulch and feed to the base as I describe later for all the roses.  Late summer, August/September, is the time to prune these roses after they have finished flowering. During the summer they produce lots of new, long shoots which will produce flowers in years to come and which must be retained and eventually tied into the support structure if they haven’t already grown into it themselves.  The growths to remove are the stems which carried the flowers in June and July as they have done their job. They can be cut back either to within a foot of the ground or to a level higher up where some new shoots have appeared from. This will encourage new shoots to grow to replace the ones cut back and you will be amazed at how quickly they do this. Once this is all removed, and you might need loppers rather than secateurs to do so, it is much easier to tie in all the new growth again at an angle or horizontally. If these shoots extend beyond the limits of the support their ends can be removed. Finally, although this can be done before the tying in if it is easier, all the laterals should be pruned back to 4-6” (10-15 cms) from the main shoots unless the lateral is required to become part of the framework. This all works well with plants on walls, fences and smaller buildings although it is quite a big job, will take some time, involves lots of stepping back to decide on the next part to prune or tie in as well as large quantities of tea and cake! However, I do accept that it is not so easy when the plants are growing through trees or over larger buildings and for this reason many gardeners just leave them to their own devices and rely on nature’s own methods of pruning.

Finally following the pruning of any rose in the February/March period I would always advocate adding a feed of a specialised rose fertiliser and a mulch of compost or well-rotted manure to help it produce new, healthy growth as it builds up to its first flowering period in June. As roses are greedy feeders and we ask a lot of them I always give them a second feed in June to encourage them to continue to flower and to grow strongly, healthily and be as free of disease as possible.

If all this seems to be a lot of bother and too complicated just think of the wonderful blooms which your well-pruned rose is going to produce and you will realise that it is all worthwhile! Just choose a nice mild, dry day and enjoy the pruning process and the fact that you can forget the pandemic for a while! You won’t regret it.

The next blog will be ‘The Garden In March’ when we can start to enjoy the new growing season and all that it promises. Until then keep safe and good gardening.


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