My Tips for Trimming Roses
It’s that time of year again in the rose world when gardeners are cleaning their tools off, sharpening their shears, and waiting for a break in the weather so they can get out and begin a much anticipated annual ritual. I say much anticipated because as one who understands the process and the correct techniques of rose pruning, I look forward to it each year. But I know that for new gardeners, the act of pruning roses can seem daunting and even downright is scary for some. Don’t worry though – if you learn a few simple methods that I am going to teach you, you will have no need to be fearful.
There’s not enough room on this blog to teach you all of the details and the subtle nuances that are necessary to become an expert, but I think I can pass on enough of the basics to get you started on the right path. You can always get detailed instructions in my new eBook on pruning roses (see link below) if you want the complete picture.
As you may be aware, roses come in a few basic types, and each one is handled differently. I’ll focus on the Hybrid Tea type roses for now. Climbers and Knockouts are covered in my eBook on the subject. Hybrid Teas as a group produce the large, colorful roses you would find at a florist or in a rose competition.
When to Prune
One question I am frequently asked is, “When should I start my trimming?” Here’s what I suggest – if you are in a more moderate location like California or Texas, late January or February is the best time to prune. If you are in a colder climate, you should probably hold off until March. Don’t just look at the calendar though – you should schedule your pruning to fit into the following window: once the chance of a freeze has passed but before the buds on the rose canes begin to swell.
Here is what you should focus on when carrying out your annual trimming of Hybrid Teas:
- Maintain a constant supply of young growth
- Create the situation for best individual bud development
- Develop longer flower stems for cutting
- Aim for an evenly shaped shrub
- Develop an open center for light and air circulation
- Shape to keep head in balance with trunk
You can start getting ready during the winter months by gathering and preparing your tools. I suggest that you invest in good quality rose trimming tools and take good care of them. Like my father always said – only a rich man can afford cheap tools. The following is a basic list of tools that will get you by:
- Loppers (no anvil types)
- Bypass hand clippers (my favorite are Felcos)
- Holster (optional)
- Folding pruning saw
- *Gloves (good quality rose gloves)
*Specialized rose pruning gloves will save your forearms and are well worth the investment.
A good garden center can get you pointed to the correct tools. Don’t let them talk you out of the bypass-style hand clippers.
When the time is right (within the window mentioned above), gather your tools and have some time set aside where you won’t be rushed. It’s time to begin…No Wait!…There is one other thing I always do and suggest you consider doing it too.
You see, roses have these things called THORNS and those thorns have been lying in wait all Winter long for Spring to come and some unwitting human (you) to come within reach. I don’t believe that roses are truly mean, but they do like to remind you that they are “allowing” you to prune them. They do this by jabbing their pointed daggers deep beneath your skin when your attention is elsewhere, so I suggest you say a brief prayer to the rose gods before you start pruning. You can certainly make up your own plea, but if you can’t come up with one you can use mine.
“My dearest most beautiful rose. Please be nice to me today. I only want to help you become more beautiful and healthy so that you can live a long live and so that people and animals will be amazed at your wondrous beauty. I will be gentle with you if you will be so with me.”
Now we’re ready to begin.
Remove any dead or diseased wood first. Cut it off, and toss it away. I suggest that if you have a large amount of diseased plant material that you dip the blades of your tools in a mix of water and bleach to prevent the transfer of disease once you have removed all the junk. Use about a teaspoon of bleach to a gallon of water.
Create a clear view of the plant structure (the skeleton). I do this by cutting off everything above two feet. It’s important that you have a clear view of the plant for the next step because you are going to be selecting the proper canes to keep.
I approach pruning my roses as a sculptor approaches a block of marble. This makes the process very simple. I picture what I want the end result to be and just remove everything else. See? Simple right? My ideal shape for the end result is three or five canes that are shaped like a cone and evenly spaced (as close as possible) and are no more than 18″ long. The canes should be last year’s growth and should be green and supple and not dark and woody. Once you have selected the canes you are going to keep, just cut out everything else. Once you’re done with this step, it’s time to move onto cutting the canes to the correct length.
Bud selection. One of the goals noted above was to create the conditions for an open shrub, so that there is good air circulation. Roses are well known for the number of diseases and fungus they can develop, and one way to combat mildew and others pains in the you-know-what is to let air penetrate into the center of the plant. Keep that in mind when you are selecting how short to cut each cane. You should look for a bud on each cane that is facing outward not toward the side or the center of the cone. You may need to go down the cane a few inches to find one, but even if you have to cut the canes at staggered heights it’s okay. The canes should end up between 12″ and 16″ (18″ tops) long.
There are rules about how to make that cut in relation to the bud, but just try to cut around 1/2 inch above the bud. Not too close and never further away than 1″ at a maximum.
Have the kids, your spouse or friend help with the cleanup. One suggestion I have to help alleviate the pain of grabbing a thorn is to use your loppers to chop the debris into smaller pieces before loading into the trash; and never grab a pile of rose cuttings without your gloves. Those buggers always seem to find a chink in the armor.
Now it is time to get a beer, a glass of wine, or an iced tea and admire your handiwork. Once I have stepped away from the plants for a while I usually can see a few things I missed that need to be touched-up. Feel free to putter around your roses a bit more with drink in hand.
Once I am all finished I like to distribute a good quality rose fertilizer around the base of the plant (or per the instructions) and soak them with the hose. They’ll appreciate you more if you give them a drink after all they have been through.
I hope that this helps reduce some of the hesitancy you may have been feeling as a new rose enthusiast. If you follow these instructions you will be well on your way to having beautiful flowers adorning your garden and your table.
If you need further guidance or just want to learn more about the tricks and secrets of trimming for beautiful roses you can find more help in my most recent gardening eBook in the Rainforth Home and Garden series Great Gardens Simplified “How to Trim Roses”