Human Flower Project
When to cut back roses, and how?
(l-r) Sprung hand shears 50BC; 20th C. equivalents; tool Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1762; c.1800; Ladies’ shears, Follows and Bates catalogue, c.1900.
Photo: Museum of Garden History
“Do I have to?”
That’s how I approach pruning. Removing dead twigs and branches makes sense but—a braid down my back—I cringe to slice through healthy stems. The promise of more rose blooms, and only that, forces my hand.
The Greenville, Mississippi, Delta Democrat Times published this instructive article on pruning several few weeks ago – fortifying.
“February and early March is the best time to do major or severe pruning because plants will recover faster with the spring flush of growth.” Azaleas, camellias and gardenias are pruned later on, even as late as July, after they’ve finished blooming, but “February is the time to prune roses; actually, George Washington’s birthday has been known as the benchmark.”
Here in Texas, everyone prunes on Valentine’s Day. As February 14th approached this year, I felt a cringe coming on. On February 9th, John Levett a.k.a. Joseph Beuys Hat announced he’d begun pruning his back garden. Since John lives in England, this seemed perilously early to me, so I wrote him asking how he knew it was time.
Photo (and rose): Antique Rose Emporium
“There’s no voodoo about this. It’s always been the rule of thumb that you don’t prune so early that emerging shoots are going to be nipped by late frosts. I’m prepared to go out on a limb & say that Winters & early Springs in this part (East) of the UK ain’t what they used to be—they’re noticeably milder….
“When I first started growing roses some 30 years ago I usually left it until late February & expected to be completed by the first couple of weeks in March. The roses I have now will be in only their second year of flowering so if I’m too early then the vigour of them is going to compensate.”
Ah yes, compensating vigor. So February 13, a bright mild day here in Central Texas, I pulled out my clippers and went at it. This site gave me further instructions on rose pruning. It recommends waiting to prune until the “second week of March around south Puget Sound.”
1. Take out all dead wood.
2. Take out all crossed or twiggy growth.
3. Keep the center open for good air circulation.
4. Cut all canes to white or pale green pith. Any brown coloration in the pith indicates a dead or dying cane, in which case the cane should be pruned to a lower bud eye, clear to the crown if necessary, in order to find live pith.
5. Cut approximately 1/4 to 1/2 inch above a bud, on a downward slant, away from the bud. Cut to an outside bud to make the plants grow wider. Cut to an inside bud for more upright growth on a plant that has a tendency to sprawl.
6. Use sharp tools for cutting. Use a keyhole saw or lopper to cut thick, woody, old canes.
7. Cut canes at uneven heights for a longer blooming period and better appearance.
8. Select from 3 to 6 strong basal shoots from previous year’s growth. Remove all other growth. Then prune those canes left.
9. Accomplish as many chores as possible just after pruning before the bushes have sprouted. Remove mulch from the bud union, weed, and clean up the rose garden. This prevents breaking off the new shoots when doing these things later.
This guide from the University of Illinois Extension Service includes some useful diagrams for all you visual learners.
I may have been a little light-handed (Sombreuil and Mary Daly still look a bit scraggly), but it’s all I had the heart for. Let April judge. To those who contend that flowers “like” to be pruned, please do the honors with my “Ballerina” next February. This dainty vixen was fighting back.