Pruning Roses in Mild Climates

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Pruning Roses in Mild Climates

Those of us who live in milder climates are quite often stumped when it comes to the question ‘When should we prune our roses?”

Considering the fact that January and February usually brings several mild-temperature days, our roses don’t always know when to stop blooming. In the winter months, most of our rose bushes still have their leaves, (although they’re less than robust, typically yellowish and disease-ridden) and you’ll even notice a handful of roses attempting to bloom!

In addition to our semi-evergreen roses, many have been told to never remove a rose’s dead flowers in the fall and winter, but to just remove the petals instead. The theory behind this statement is by leaving the spent roses intact, they’ll produce rose hips and thereby trigger the rose into dormancy. This, however, is no longer true with most roses. Modern roses don’t go into dormancy like their ancestors did. Modern roses are bred for higher re-blooming ability, and by doing so they lost their dormancy trigger. The modern rose’s growth certainly slows down, but it doesn’t completely stop.

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So what’s a gardener to do?

The first thing we need to do is ‘trick’ our roses into thinking they’re going dormant, so they stop producing leaves and puny, un-impressive roses. Instead, we want them to focus on ‘resting’ for awhile. By resting (ie: dormancy) the plant is gathering its energy and developing its underground root structure, so once warmer weather arrives its ready to explode with huge, beautiful blooms.

Gardeners don’t quite agree on when to begin this process, but in our temperate climate I recommend doing this anytime after the Super Bowl (for those of you non-sports enthusiasts, that translates to February).
How to trick your rose? The first step in this process is to strip away your rose’s leaves. This is what triggers the rose into thinking its beginning its dormant period.

After the leaves are stripped you can get a clear picture of how to best prune your rose into a tidier shape. Simply put, you want to have an open, vase-shaped rosebush when you’re finished. Cut out any crossing or puny stems (thinner than a pencil’s width is a good rule of thumb), as well as any dead canes.

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Before we go much further, I want emphasize that when pruning roses, you really can’t go too far down a wrong road. I’ll say it again: really – you can’t go wrong! Roses aren’t the fragile and delicate plants people think they are. They’re typically tough as nails. I’ve even had to transplant established roses in the middle of a hot summer, with 100% success. Sure they wilt and lose their leaves, but they almost always bounce right back. Their resiliency is one of the reasons they last for generations (just think of old, neglected cemeteries and farmhouses). Roses have developed amazing abilities to adapt to complete abuse.

On to the next step – shaping your rose. Many people think the canes must be cut at a 45-degree angle. Recent research has revealed that a 90-degree cut is better, as it exposes less surface area for the rose to heal. Just make sure the cut is a sharp one (no tears or dull pruners, please!) and make the cut above a swelling bud. The swelling bud is the point where new growth will emerge in the spring. I like to use the lightweight and ergonomic PowerGear Bypass pruners for this garden chore as its swiveling handle is easy on my hands. They’re perfect when doing a project that requires lots of little cuts!

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Many rose experts recommend pruning the rose (a shrub or tea rose, not a climber!) by as much as two-thirds. I rarely do this, as I like my rose bushes taller to provide a bit more screening, but its certainly acceptable and a great way to keep a rose’s size in check.

When finished, make sure you discard all pruning debris. Don’t compost them as the leaves and stems most likely carry fungal spores that will spring back to life if given half a chance.

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By following these simple pruning techniques, and using the right tools, your rose will reward you with huge bouquets of flowers.