By Kathy Conner Cornell
VCE Southside Master Gardener
When you mention pruning to gardeners you get a lot of gasps. Topping trees or committing crape murder is gasp-worthy but pruning during the correct time and making well-placed cuts are good for most plants and certainly for roses. Think of pruning more like clipping your fingernails or cutting your hair.
Correct final cut of a rose stem is a 45 degree angle at an outward facing bud. Note the bud is on the upper side of the cut. Pruning will enhance the blooming of your roses.
March is generally a good time to prune roses when the buds are flushing out and maybe even a few leaves. To start, gather your tools – secateurs, preferably by-pass types, loppers and gloves. I prefer to prune without gloves. This way I can spritz my hands and tools with alcohol as I go from plant to plant without spreading disease. It is important to sharpen and sterilize your tools before starting. To do this, clean off your tools with some soapy water, dry off and spray with some rubbing alcohol. Use a bastard or a mill file to sharpen the blade. To correctly sharpen (and this seems counterintuitive) pull the file back from the blade’s tip instead of pushing down on the blade. The reason for this is to sharpen the blade but not compromise the tight contact between the cutting surface and the stationary surface of the pruners. When this contact starts to gap, the cuts are no longer sharp and clean. Finish off with a drop of oil in the working parts.
Let’s start with bush roses including hybrid teas, floribundas and English roses. First step is to cut out any dead, dying, damaged or diseased branches. Then stand back and really look at the plant. Remove any crossing branches – ones that are going back into the plant and could possibly rub against other branches. Then remove side stems off the main stem.
As for height, cutting back lower creates long stems with fewer roses and cutting back higher creates more roses with shorter stems. It is important to cut at an outward facing bud. Cut about ¼” above the bud at a 45-degree angle with the bud on the taller side. This way water will run off the open cut and new growth will go out instead of back into the plant. Never fear, roses will pretty much withstand any pruning you do. It is also recommended to remove any leaves so the plant gets a fresh start. Yes, they will look stark, but next month they’ll flush out and you’ll be glad you pruned.
A word on Knock Out® Roses, I have seen these roses hacked back to a foot with a chain saw. Yes, they will look lovely when they flush out. Old, once blooming, roses, such as Alba, Gallica, Centifolia, Damasks, and Mosses, should be pruned back after flowering. Again, they can be severely pruned back and new growth will occur during the summer, fall and the early spring to support these roses that bloom on old wood.
As for climbing roses, start with getting rid of the 4 D’s – dead, dying, damaged and diseased. Find the main stem coming up from the base. Cut all the short stems off the main stem to about 2 – 3”. Cutting back to a bud is not important with climbers. Cut back any short weak stems that cannot support a flower. Tie strong stems to prevent flopping and maintain shape. Remove any foliage.
Pruning roses is not difficult and the rose will reward you with beautiful blooms throughout the season. North Carolina Extension has a useful publication entitled “Roses for North Carolina”. While we all are practicing ‘social distancing’ and Halifax County buildings are still closed to the public due to COVID-19, if you have gardening questions, you can reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to email@example.com. If you are unable to email, you can call and leave a message at the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is routinely checked. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask, practice ‘social distancing’ and get out there and prune your roses.