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Pruning Roses Correctly
Pruning Roses Correctly

Q. Mike, I have a lot of roses I want to begin pruning. Is it too soon to prune roses in this area? Also, it's a time consuming pain in the neck to cut each branch & stalk individually. Can I take a "slash & burn" approach—using hedge clippers? Thanks,
    ---Pete in Upper Black Eddy, PA
A. Gee, Pete—why stop with hedge clippers? You could save even more time with a chain saw. No; wait—I know! Ask Superman to drop by with a helicopter and he can fly around the yard holding it upside down with the blades going full blast.

If you don't like these plants, why are you growing so many of them?

What you call 'slash and burn' is known as 'whacking' in the trade. "Rose whackers" are not highly regarded by more careful rosarians, and typically use lots of chemicals throughout the summer to try and repair the damage they did in the Spring. Pruning roses is a once a year task that should be done slowly and carefully. It's your best chance at spotting—and removing—problems early in the season and taking stock of any damage a severe winter has caused.

Here's the plan: Wait until the roses begin growing again in the Spring. Then wait a little longer if a hard freeze is predicted in the next two weeks; or a lot longer if it's real early in the season and they're responding to a freak warm spell, as freshly pruned roses can be severely damaged by a hard freeze. Examine each bush carefully and remove any dead, damaged, diseased or just plain ugly canes. Where disease is evident, prune well below the diseased area, cutting only into healthy tissue. This avoids you feeling that you have to clean your pruners with some ill-advised toxin, like the commonly recommended (and extremely foolish) bleach. (If you're compulsive and must use something, wipe the pruners with white vinegar.)

Now, examine what's left. If the center of the plant is crowded, remove some entire canes to improve the internal airflow. If you want to do some gentle shaping as well, go right ahead. If you want canes to grow in certain directions, look to the little buds. Cut just above a bud that's pointing in a certain direction and the cane will grow the way that bud is pointing.

When you're done, pick up and trash all of the prunings and remove any old mulch from around the rose. If it wasn't mulched, scrape off the top layer of soil; the area under a rose typically harbors lots of disease spores from previous years. Then mulch underneath the plant with an inch of fresh compost and you should be set. No chemical fertilizer, no wood mulch of any kind and no mulch of any kind touching the base of the plant.

Q. I have contracted to have replacement 'energy saving windows' installed on our home. I was going to prune back the roses under our bedroom windows in preparation, but noticed that they had started to sprout tiny leaves already. (We had a week of 70 degree weather a little while ago.) Should I prune them now? Should I wait? And should I trim back a little each week? Or do it all in one fell swoop? I went to your 'A to Z answers' section and found all kinds of info on rooting and transplanting, but nothing on pruning. I have to prune them within a few weeks for the contractor to have access. Thanks,
    ---Jim in Norman Oklahoma
A. Obviously, you have a special—but not uncommon—situation; we get a lot of mail from people who need to protect plants while work is being done on the house.

Now, it sounds like there's going to be a lot of foot traffic, heavy lifting and construction debris in the area, so my first suggestion is that we move them out of the way temporarily. As I explained on the show a few weeks back, roses take a move as well or better than any other plant, and yours would prefer to be somewhere else during this renovation opera.

So I suggest you cut them back as much as necessary, dig them up, and replant them in a temporary home. If the work is going to be completed quickly, just heel their roots into a big pile of topsoil or compost, water it all frequently and then replant them when the adventure is over.

If stay in that spot they must, wait until the last minute to avoid a late hard freeze, trim them back (all at once, not a little bit at a time) and then do something to protect the plants and the workers—maybe wrap each bush in a couple layers of burlap. Otherwise, the plants could suffer some spontaneous retribution for every deep scratch their thorns inflict.

Now, if you had asked me this question back in December, I would have suggested you prune them on a freezing cold day in winter. Pruning woody plants when they're dormant is risk-free. It's the possibility of a hard freeze in Spring that makes the timing a little trickier right now, which is why I urge you to wait as long as possible. Really cautious rose growers don't generally prune until it's safe to put their tomato plants in the ground….

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