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- Pruning Rose Bushes: Cutting Back Roses To Keep Them Beautiful
- Instructions for Pruning Roses
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How to Prune Roses
Most roses need a couple of years in the ground before they really thrive. Roses also need plenty of sun. The more the sun they have, the more flowers they can make. Plant them where they’ll get a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day.
Roses don’t do well when their roots stay wet, so don’t plant them in areas that drain slowly or stay wet. If you’re growing roses inplanters, fill them with quality potting soil and make sure they have holes for drainage.
For best results before you plant new roses, check the pH of your garden soil and add soil amendments if necessary. The ideal for roses is around 6.5. You can buy a soil pH test kit or ask your local extension service agent to test your soil for you. Soil that drains easily and contains nutrient-rich, organic materials will produce healthy plants and more flowers.
Follow any information on the rose’s tag or label to know how much space it needs. If information isn’t available, a good rule of thumb is to provide twice the depth and twice the width of the root structure when the bush is planted. Rose roots don’t like to be cramped, so also remember that rule when planting in containers.
In general, roses grow better and bear more flowers with fertilizer. The first fertilization is typically done after the danger of frost has passed in your region. Roses are very hungry plants and can be fed with plant and flower fertilizer. Follow the directions on the product for the amount of fertilizer needed. Keep feeding them throughout the growing season as the directions indicate.
Water your plants thoroughly when you first plant them and then again about once a week if rainfall is scarce. Roses respond better to water applied to the ground rather than from overhead, so soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems are helpful.
After you plant your bushes, apply a two- to three-inch thick layer of mulch around them. This helps retain moisture in the soil and discourages weeds from sprouting.
If your rose bushes are attacked by insect pests or diseases, ask your local Home Depot Garden Center Associate for help or visit The Home Depot Community for suggestions on treating these problems.
Tea House Roses, photo by Nikki Hayden
Roses are certainly one of the world’s most beloved flowers, and yet many people have given up on them because they have gotten the reputation of needing frequent spraying, feeding and fussing. They got this reputation because for decades, hybrid tea and floribunda roses were bred mostly for special colors, a particular flower form and repeat flowering. Their value was judged more for the exhibition table than for the garden. Now, as more people have become aware of the dangers of pesticides and as the trend has moved to “care-free” shrub roses for the garden, rose breeding has shifted in the last ten years towards more sustainability.
Now Texas A&M has a program to test and promote “Earth Kind Roses”, and the rose “Knock Out” has recently taken the rose world by storm, not because it is such a beautiful flower, but because it repeats so well and requires no disease control. Even I, who am mostly interested in xeriscape, natives and Colorado-adapted plants, have come to specialize also in roses because I have been won over by more than a hundred varieties that measure up to my strict requirements for Colorado sustainability.There can be no objective standards for sustainability since all gardeners have different standards, different gardens and varying time and effort available for gardening. But I will offer one approach. To begin with, a sustainable rose shouldn’t act like an annual. Maybe a hundred years lifespan is a bit much to expect, but I think a sustainable rose should perform well for at least ten years.
Secondly, a sustainable rose should be resistant to diseases and have few pest problems. We gardeners should not have to put on a protective suit and spray poisons every 3 or 4 weeks to have nice roses. I think we shouldn’t have to spray more than one or two (maybe 3) times a year, and then we should only spray with water or a mild, non-toxic type of spray. We are fortunate in Colorado to have low humidity and therefore fewer fungus diseases. And more and more varieties are available that are disease resistant.
Another quality of a sustainable rose is that it should be a strong plant that doesn’t need to be pumped up every few weeks with a chemical fertilizer. Chemical fertilizers can be harmful to our soil life and can induce pest and disease problems because fast growth leads to soft tissues; and as the price of petroleum goes up, so will the price of petroleum-derived fertilizers. At Harlequin’s Gardens nursery, we feed our display roses twice a year with a good quality organic fertilizer. Wild (Species) roses don’t need feeding, and the spring-only bloomers only need one feeding a year. Repeat-blooming roses perform better when they are fed twice a year.
A sustainable rose should be able to survive difficult conditions and still perform reasonably well. In Colorado that means a rose has to be able to handle wind, heavy clay and lean soils, some drought, heat, intense ultraviolet radiation, and rapid temperature changes. Many roses that do well in other parts of the country will not pass these tests. There are, however, roses growing in cemeteries and alleys that have survived here for decades, others that have persevered through wars and neglect since the Middle Ages, and also modern shrub roses that thrive here. Of course, what is sustainable and what a rose can endure is relative to the particular location and to the amount of care the gardener wants to give.
And the last characteristic of a sustainable rose is that it must be cold hardy. Many Hybrid Tea and Floribunda roses that are hardy enough for the East and West Coast and the South, won’t pass the ten year test in Colorado, but a few will. And beware the “hardy to Zone 5” promise, because many companies and authors that are unsure of hardiness will say “Zone 5”. Even if a rose will survive 20 below zero, survival depends on when the freeze comes. If a rose has gone dormant and has acclimated to cold temperatures, it is ready to handle a deep freeze. But if the rose is still growing and blooming late in the fall (like we love to see in the Hybrid Teas and Floribundas), or if it begins growing too early in the spring, then our rapidly changing Colorado temperatures can cause considerable die-back or even death.
This brings up the subject of own-root roses. Most of the Hybrid Tea and Floribunda roses that are available commercially are grafted. A single bud from a rose is grafted onto the stem of a seedling rose. This quickly produces a rose for sale, but has numerous drawbacks in terms of sustainability. The graft union is the most cold-sensitive part of the plant, so if it freezes and the upper rose dies, only the root-stock will come up in the spring, not the rose you bought. Also when the entire plant grows from one stem, it cannot renew itself from the root if the stem gets damaged or diseased or gets too old. However if a rose is grown from a cutting and produces its own roots, then it can renew itself possibly for a hundred years. It has more resistance to cold, it generally produces more flowers because it has multiple stems coming from the root, and if it should die back to the ground or get accidentally cut off, the variety you bought will sprout from the root. It used to be hard to find own-root roses, but by gardeners’ demand, they are becoming more common. Nearly all Canadian-bred roses are produced on their own roots, because Agriculture Canada has done field trials that prove the higher success rates of own-root roses in cold climates.
Now I would like to give a few examples of roses that are sustainable in Colorado. There are several species of roses that are native to Colorado including Rosa woodsii and Rosa acicularis, but even these need proper siting and/or some water. And truthfully, though species roses are beautiful, many survive by suckering aggressively so are mostly valuable for wildlife areas, the back corner and for bank stabilization. There are other species roses that are well adapted to Colorado, like Rosa eglanteria and Rosa glauca. Rosa glauca, the Redleaf Rose, may seed a little, but it does not sucker aggressively. It has a high American Rose Society rating because it looks good in all seasons. Foremost is its foliage which is a very unusual and beautiful reddish-purple all season long. The spring blooms are small, mauve flowers and following them are copious red hips that last into winter and are showy against the snow. It will grow 5—5′ or a little bigger, is tolerant of poor soil, shade and some drought.
Also sustainable are many of the heirloom roses. The Gallicas can sucker like a wild rose, but usually not as aggressively. They would be my choice to plant by a grave stone, since their suckering can help them evade lawn mowers and herbicides. One of my favorites is Complicata. It is a 7—7′ shrub with long arching canes and large 4″ bright pink single flowers. Yes, it only blooms in the spring, but I pair mine with an old-fashioned Mockorange, and when they bloom together, the effect is stunning. It appreciates the little care I give it, but could undoubtedly survive on its own. Other heirlooms that ask little and give a lot are the Alba roses, like Felicite Parmentier; the Damasks, like Madame Hardy; the Mosses like William Lobb; and the ferny-leafed roses like Father Hugo. Don’t discount these sustainable beauties, just because they are only spring blooming; they are often tougher than the repeaters.
There are also heirloom roses that repeat their flowering and are sustainable. One of these is Sydonie. It is a vigorous 5—6′ shrub with very double medium pink flowers that are very fragrant. It is hardy and has a very reliable and profuse repeat bloom. (It was said to be the favorite rose of Dr. William Campbell, who founded the High Country Rosarium). Others include Rose de Rescht, Marchesa Boccella and Stanwell Perpetual.
The early climbing roses were the ramblers which, though almost all bloom only in the spring, make up for it with huge volumes of blooms. One of these is Paul’s Himalayan Musk. I warn people that it has vicious hooked thorns and covers trees and small buildings, but the pendulous clusters of sweetly fragrant lavender-pink blossoms and the romance of it makes them ignore my warnings. I get to suffer through pruning the one pictured, which overwhelms the apple tree at our house where it stops traffic when in bloom. Francis E. Lester and Lawrence Johnston are also reliable ramblers.
In the group called Shrub Roses, there are many that are sustainable. One of the oldest and best in that category is Seafoam. It grows 3′ high and 4′ wide and has small double white flowers that repeat all season. It is very tough and tolerates difficult conditions well. During the drought of 2002, I saw one in a median strip where nearly everything else had died, and Seafoam was still blooming. Golden Wings and Linda Campbell are other sustainable shrub roses.
The Canadian Roses are classified as shrub roses, but we give them a separated category. They were bred in Canada to be repeat flowering, disease resistant and very cold hardy to at least Zone 3. Two years ago when winter conditions caused many roses to die back, the Canadians had little damage. In particular, most of the best climbing roses for Colorado are Canadian Roses. Two favorites are John Cabot, growing 8—10′ with orchid pink flowers, and Henry Kelsey, growing 6—8′ with red semi-double blooms which fade to a pink-red. Both tolerate some shade, poor soil and stingy watering. Other good Canadian roses are Morden Blush, Winnepeg Parks, John Davis and Morden Sunrise.
David Austin’s English Roses are neither the hardiest, nor the most disease resistant, but on their own roots, many have performed very well in Colorado. They have really beautiful flowers and are often wonderfully fragrant and most repeat very well, so they are worth a little extra work. We have been growing Abraham Darby at the Boulder-Dushanbe Teahouse for 8 years very successfully. It makes a dense shrub 5′ tall and wide with 4—5″ voluptuous double flowers that are a soft-pink shading to apricot in the center. The fragrance is a strong old rose mixed with a delicious fruitiness. It has excellent repeat bloom and has proved a strong performer. Golden Celebration, Jude the Obscure, Wise Portia, Wenlock and others have done well here.
Like the native roses, the “Found Roses” have survived decades of Colorado’s trials by fire and ice. These are roses salvaged from cemeteries, alleys and old homesteads, which are lost to commerce, obscure or unknown. Most only bloom in the spring, but have proved their sustainability and worth. One of these is Desiree Parmentier. It is found in many local communities, growing 4′ high and up to 6′ wide. The medium pink blooms are very double with a green eye, and are deeply and powerfully fragrant with old rose perfume. It may only bloom for 4 weeks but tolerates poor soil, drought, considerable shade and is completely winter hardy. It does sucker a little, and you may think “Oh, I don’t want a roses that sucker, they are a nuisance.” And you may be right. But suckering is a very sustaining strategy. For example, if the roots find more water east of the original plant, the sucker that comes up on the east side will prosper and move the plant in a more sustainable direction. Other enduring “Found Roses” are “Banshee”, “Fairmount Proserpine”, and “Pine Street Tricolor”.
These are but a few of the roses that can glorify our gardens sustainably. They may be a little more trouble than hardwood shrubs, but their other qualities reward us for our efforts. Roses grow quickly and recover from damage quickly, their beauty can touch our hearts, their fragrance can melt into our soul, and many can flower repeatedly. Now we can find these qualities in sustainable roses that are easier to maintain and whose care is kinder to our Earth.
Colorado State University
Roses are an excellent addition to Colorado landscapes. While there are dozens of rose classifications listed by the American Rose Society, most roses grown in Colorado fit into one of the following types: hybrid tea, miniature, floribunda, grandiflora, climbing and shrub.
Hybrid tea roses are grown for their flowers, and not necessarily for foliage. Hybrid teas have the greatest color range of any rose, but the shape of the plant and thorny stems make it less desirable as a landscape plant. Stems usually bear one flower, which are perfectly formed and often fragrant. Common hybrid tea roses include ‘Memorial Day’, ‘Mr. Lincoln’ and ‘Peace’.
Known for their petite size and flowers, miniature roses are usually less than two feet in height and their flowers resemble those of hybrid tea roses. Single or double flowers bloom in all colors. Everything on the plant is small—leaves, flower and habit. These plants are excellent for containers and also for garden borders. Popular varieties include ‘Autumn Sunblaze’, ‘Magic Carousel’ and ‘Snow Bride’.
Floribunda roses have flowers in clusters, which bloom profusely throughout the season with some fragrance. Plants are more compact, making them a nice addition to the landscape. Good selections include ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’, ‘First Edition’ and ‘Nicole.’
Similar in habit to floribunda roses, but with larger flowers, grandifloras bloom for longer periods of time. Flower size is comparable to hybrid teas and these plants may have clustered flowers. Some favor the flowers of grandifloras over those of hybrid teas. Recommended varieties include ‘Pink Parfait’, ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and ‘Tournament of Roses’.
Climbing roses can be successfully grown in Colorado and are repeat-bloomers that bloom on new wood formed that season. Climbing roses that bloom on old wood tend to suffer from winter kill. These plants are vigorous and often grow up to five feet or more per season and require support. Two climbing roses that do well are ‘The Sky’s the Limit’ and ‘Dortmund.’
The shrub rose category encompasses roses that come in a variety of sizes (3-10’ tall) and vary greatly in flower form—from single, to double to clustered. Shrub roses can be used as hedges, screens, barriers or as specimen plants. These roses are considered to be some of the hardiest and most successful for Colorado. Included in this group are the English roses developed by David Austin, such as ‘Gertrud Jekyll’. While shrub roses aren’t known to be repeat bloomers, these plants are relatively carefree and need little maintenance. Suggested cultivars include ‘Sunrise Sunset’, ‘Knockout’ and ‘Morden Sunrise’.
Old garden roses are those introduced prior to 1867, but many are not hardy to Colorado. They are similar to shrub roses and include ‘Austrian Copper.’ Rugosa roses are another type and have recurrent blooms, good disease resistance and are extremely fragrant. While these plants are very thorny, sited in the right place, they can be a show-stopper. Consider ‘Purple Pavement’ or ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’.
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Pruning Rose Bushes: Cutting Back Roses To Keep Them Beautiful
Pruning roses is a necessary part of keeping rose bushes healthy, but many people have questions about cutting back roses and how to trim roses back the right way. There is no need to be afraid. Pruning rose bushes is really a simple process.
Instructions for Pruning Roses
I am a “spring pruner” when it comes to pruning roses. Instead of pruning roses bushes way down in the fall after they have gone dormant, I wait until early spring when I see the leaf buds starting to form up well.
My taller rose bushes do get a pruning down to about half their height once they have gone dormant in the fall. This fall rose pruning is to help prevent damage to the overall bush from winter winds and heavy snows, either whipping the canes around or breaking them over all the way down to the ground.
Here in Colorado, and anywhere that gets winter long freezing weather, more often than not the spring pruning means cutting back roses down to within two to three inches of the ground. Due to all the cane die-back from cold damage, this heavy rose pruning really is necessary for most of the rose bushes.
I say most because there are a few exceptions to this heavy pruning. Those exceptions for trimming roses heavily are the climbers, most of the miniature and mini-floras as well as some of the shrub roses. You can find directions for pruning climbing roses here.
The Hybrid Tea, Grandiflora and Floribunda rose bushes all get the heavy rose pruning mentioned above. This means cutting the rose canes back to where green growth can be found, which is typically 2 to 3 inches from the ground when the weather stays cold all winter. Very few years have allowed me to do what I would call a light pruning of cutting back the roses down to 6 or 8 inches of the ground.
In warmer zones, this heavy rose pruning would shock and horrify most rose gardeners. They would swear the rose bush has now most certainly been killed. In warmer areas, you may find that the die back that needs to be pruned is only a few inches into the rose bush. Regardless of the needed pruning, the rose bushes seem to take it all in stride. The new growth comes forth strong and proud, and before you know it they have regained their height, beautiful foliage and amazing blooms.
Keep in mind when pruning rose bushes that a slight angle to the cut is good to keep moisture from sitting on the cut end of the cane. Too steep a cut will provide a weak base for the new growth, so a slight angle is best. It is best to make the slightly angled, cutting 3/16 to 1/4 inch above an outward facing leaf bud. The leaf buds can be found at a location where an old multiple leaf junction to the cane formed last season.
Tips for Care After Cutting Back Roses
One very important step in this spring rose pruning process is to seal the cut ends of all canes 3/16 of an inch in diameter and larger with some white Elmer’s glue. Not the school glue, as it seems to like to wash off in the spring rains. The glue on the cut ends of the canes forms a nice barrier that helps prevent cane boring insects from boring into the canes and causing damage to them. In some cases, a boring insect can bore down far enough to kill the entire cane and sometimes the rose bush.
Once the rose pruning is all done, give each rose bush some rose food of your choice, working it into the soil a bit and then water them well. The process of new growth leading to those cherished beautiful blooms has now begun!
The instructions in this article cover the pruning of English Shrub Roses, as well as other repeat flowering shrub roses.
We recommend pruning in late winter/early spring, when the first growth is beginning. This is generally between February and March.
It is ok to prune earlier, but it can be more difficult to identify the less healthy stems that you will want to prune out.
If you still haven’t pruned by April it is still better to do so.
Remember these key points to ensure effective pruning:
- Shaping is essential. Try to create a rounded shrub.
- Don’t worry about where you cut a stem. Accepted wisdom suggests cutting just above a leaf joint with a sloping cut away from the bud. However, there is no evidence to prove this is necessary.
- Don’t worry about cutting back too much. Roses are extremely strong and will grow back even if you cut all of the stems right back to the base.
- Carefully dispose of foliage. Foliage should never be composted and should be removed from your garden. This ensures spores that can initiate disease are removed from your garden.
- Look out for loose roses. Look out for any roses that are loose in the ground due to the wind rocking them to the point where they are no longer standing upright. Firm around the base of each loose rose and cut them back a little more to reduce wind resistance.
Dead-heading is the removal of faded flowers before they can develop seed. Dead-heading is a form of summer or day-to-day pruning. The standard recommendation is to cut the flower stem back to an outward-facing bud above a five-leaflet or seven-leaflet leaf.
This “rule” applies best to plants that are vigorous. If the plant is weak or small, you may not want to cut off as much material. Each time you remove this much wood you are removing a lot of the food-making ability of the plant. This method works well for most recurrent-blooming types of roses. With rugosa and other shrub roses where hips are a part of the display, you may not want to prune off the old flowers. In this case, simply clean the spent blooms away with your hand, leaving the hips. Flowers should not be cut after October 1 to allow the plant to begin hardening off for the winter. Dead-heading is also a good way to lessen the likelihood of diseases such a botrytis from becoming a problem
The pruning of rose bushes can be confusing, especially when you start talking about hybrid teas, old garden roses, shrub roses, once-blooming roses, and English roses. This confusion leads to doubt and improper pruning or no pruning.
The class of rose and the time of year it blooms influence the type and amount of pruning. General pruning principles apply to all roses, but there are differences between classes. The closer one gets to species roses the less severe the pruning. Hybrid teas have the distinction of requiring the most severe pruning for optimum bloom and plant health.
Because of the variety of rose types available, one may need to have an understanding of how the rose flowers. Pruning should also be looked at as applying a few common sense principles to accomplish several tasks. These tasks are to remove dead, damaged, or diseased wood; increase air circulation; keep the shrub from becoming a tangled mess; shape the plant; and encourage the growth of flowering wood.
The majority of pruning is done in the spring. Many rose growers suggest waiting until the forsythias start to bloom as a good signal for the pruning season to begin.
The goal of spring pruning is to produce an open centered plant. This allows air and light to penetrate easily.
Basic pruning fundamentals that apply to all roses include:
- Use clean, sharp equipment.
- Cut at a 45-degree angle about 1/4 inch above outward-facing bud. The cut should slant away from the bud.
- Entirely remove all dead or dying canes. These can be identified as canes that are shriveled, dark brown, or black.
- If cane borers are a problem, it is suggested to seal the ends of the cuts to prevent the entry of cane borers. White glue works well.
- Remove all thin, weak canes that are smaller than a pencil in diameter.
- If roses are grafted and there is sucker growth, remove it. The best way is to dig down to the root where the sucker is originating and tear it off where it emerges. Cutting suckers off only encourages regrowth of several suckers where there once was one.
Modern Ever-Blooming Roses
Roses like hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas, and miniatures produce the best flowers on new or current season’s wood. To ensure this type of wood, these roses are pruned very hard in early spring. This usually means removing about one-half to two-thirds of the plant’s height and reducing the number of canes.
Suggested pruning sequence:
- Remove all dead canes; cut them off at the base or point of discoloration.
- Remove small, weak canes.
- Leave 3 to 5 healthy, stout canes evenly spaced around the plant.
- Cut these canes back, leaving 3 to 5 outward-facing buds.
Modern Shrub Roses
Repeat-flowering shrub roses bear flowers on mature stems that are not old and woody. Severe pruning of these roses would result in reduced flower production. In their first two or three seasons in the garden, shrub roses can be left unpruned. Wait to see what shape develops and then try to prune so that the shape is maintained. Many modern shrub roses are pruned by a method called the “one-third” method. Suggested pruning sequence:
- In the spring, remove one-third of the very oldest canes. This helps keep the plant from becoming an overgrown thicket of poor-flowering canes.
- Replace these canes by identifying about one-third of the very youngest canes that grew the previous season.
- Remove the remaining canes.
The result of this one-third method is that you are continually renewing the rose while at the same time keeping enough mature wood to ensure a good supply of flower-producing wood.
Old Garden Roses
These roses are pruned much like modern shrub roses with some important considerations based on class. Old once-blooming roses such as Alba, Gallica, Centifolia, Damasks, and Mosses produce flowers on old wood, all pruning should be delayed until after flowering. Then, you do as little or as much pruning as is required to maintain the plant. Thinning and removing old wood is encouraged. These roses may not need annual pruning if there is no dead or damaged wood present.
Repeat-flowering old garden roses such as Bourbons, Hybrid Perpetuals, and Portlands bloom on both new and old wood. These can be pruned before they flower and pruned harder without fear of losing blooms.
Climbers and Ramblers
Climbers and ramblers may need a few seasons in the garden before pruning is necessary. In many cases, pruning is limited to removing winter-damaged wood. Pruning is similar for both classes. The difference is in the timing. Because ramblers are once-blooming, they are pruned right after flowering in early summer. Because climbers are repeat bloomers, they are pruned in early spring. Reducing the side shoots or laterals to 3-6 inches stimulates flower production, resulting in more blooms. Training canes to grow more horizontally encourages the growth of bloom producing side shoots.
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