Friday, April 19, 2013

Pruning Roses

This last week, I finished pruning my roses. Pruning a rose bush is a job that requires a bi-polar mind. On the one hand you do not want to remove too many of the healthy canes that are ready to bloom. On the other,  you know the bush will look much better if you prune a fair bit of wood. The secret to success is a balancing act between keeping and discarding enough.

In a zone 5 like ours, before you even think of pruning, you have to provide some protection to the bushes in the preceding fall to make sure they survive the winter. My approach to this part of the job is unorthodox. Since we have a reliable snow cover, I simply try to make sure the branches stay under the snow. Instead of carting in soil or mulch to cover the shrubs or wrapping them in burlap – which is a lot of work both in the fall and in the spring, I bend the canes to the ground and put a weight on them, usually a large piece of wood. This involves much less work than wrapping bushes individually but you have to make sure nothing “sticks up” above the presumed snow level, or the cold will burn it. You might end up with a cane the tip of which was covered by snow and in perfect health, but with the middle part of which burned up.

In spring, the first step consists in removing all dead wood. This is brittle, old wood or frozen wood that is dark red or brown (by opposition to healthy green wood).  If you are not sure, peel a bit of the bark, and if there is some green (cambium layer), it is alive. Sometimes, this first step to pruning is the only one as there is not much left by the time you have removed all the damaged wood. This is what happened to one of my rose bushes this year. It suffered more than the others and has less healthy canes left than I would have liked.

Once you are left with all the healthy canes, you get to the bipolar stage. You see all the fat buds on the branches, full of promise of foliage and blooms, and feel very reluctant to get rid of anything. However, it is a fact that rosebushes respond to a good pruning, and usually three or four strong healthy branches are all you need. The ones to take out are the older canes. You keep the best ones that grew the previous summer. Once I have finished pruning a rose, I usually think “I have finally done it this year – I  have pruned out far too many canes”.
Rose Bushed Pruned

Discarding the healthy branches I have pruned out, is for me another challenge. Using short lengths of branches you have discarded, you can make cuttings to get new rose bushes. In fact, many of my roses come from cuttings of roses I had in my old garden. If you cannot use the new plants, they make good gifts to gardening friends. However,  making cutting increases your workload, now and throughout the  summer when you have to take care of them.

I could make dozens of cuttings, but I usually do only a few. Some rose varieties strike much more easily than others. For instance, if I have any healthy material from the variety Ballerina, I will certainly make cuttings since they take so readily. I might also make cuttings of a few other varieties, depending on how rushed I am. Roses growing on their own roots (from your cuttings) are supposed to be tougher, more resistant to cold and longer lived (than roses you buy which are grafted).

Pruning roses is a job for just after winter when it is still too cold for weeding. You will still get freezing temperatures after you have pruned, but nothing cold enough to injure a bush that has spent the winter outside. For instance, when the ice storm came the other day, I had three or four roses uncovered and pruned, but they did not suffer from being exposed to the ice.

Close up of Dortmund (2012)

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful description of your winter protection and spring pruning! Most of the time, I try to get people to understand that roses aren't hard to grow, and that there are just a few things that need to be done to succeed. You have just very expertly explained the Whys and Hows of pruning in a way that almost everyone can understand and identify with.

    Your photo of Dortmund, protected during winter with snow cover, will definitely be an image that sticks with me! Climbers in my zone 7 garden aren't all that difficult to do ... in your zone 5 they are an accomplishment.


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