Follow these simple guidelines, and improve the blooming on all of your roses.

I live across the street to the number two man in my city's fire department. Last year he hired a garden center to design and install plantings for him, and they did quite a nice job. As part of that landscaping, he installed six roses. Last spring he came to me and asked about pruning them. I gave him a timetable and some simple information.

A few weeks later he called me over for help and I saw roses that had broken dormancy weeks before, with the dead wood hovering over new growth. When I asked him why he had not cut them back, he said that he was afraid to cut them, since he thought that he might kill them. As I pointed out to him, that since he runs into burning buildings for a living, it seemed rather interesting that he was afraid of a plant. I also let him know that it is virtually impossible to kill a rose by pruning it. Nonetheless, I went over and gave him a tutorial (I pruned one, we pruned one together and then he was unleashed but supervised) but I wonder - are other people this terrified of pruning roses? In case you are like my fireman friend, this article is for you.

When I describe pruning, I am referring to the winter ending/spring beginning type of cutting back, as roses are emerging from dormancy with the beginning of the new season. This is generally necessary in colder zones. It is definitely required in zones 6 and colder, since there tends to be dieback and the roses go completely dormant.

Firstly, bear in mind the goal of pruning roses as they are emerging from their winter slumber. You are endeavoring to produce growth that will be open and healthy and allow air to circulate. To achieve this, start with the fundamentals.

The equipment that you use should be clean and sharp. Dull pruners and loppers make ragged cuts - entryways for disease and insects. It is often advised to have something with which to disinfect your pruners before moving to a new plant to avoid spreading disease. I must confess that I rarely do this, but if a rose has been particularly diseased in the previous season, this might be wise. There are many suggestions, but some, like bleach, are corrosive to garden tools. It will also bleach your clothes if it comes into contact with them. The advice I found most helpful was to use good old Lysol. If you choose to disinfect, just make a weak solution of Lysol and water, put it in a bucket, and dip the blades in the solution at the conclusion of working on each plant, and wipe them with an old towel or rag.

The best kind of hand pruner for cutting roses is the bypass pruner, like in the image above. It makes a neat and clean cut because the blades "bypass" each other, rather like scissors. Avoid the type of pruners that crush the canes together.

For larger, thicker stems, it is best to use loppers, which are simply a larger, longer verion of hand pruners with the same scissor action.

Ideally, each cut should be at a 45 degree angle above an outfacing bud, slanting away from the bud. Oh, sure! I can never succeed in doing this, so just do the best you can. It will be fine if you accomplish this at least some of the time. After all, there are no pruning police standing by watching. Far more important is that you remove any dead, brown, or withered stems. If they are shriveled, brown or black, take them out. Keep cutting until you see healthy tissue, which is pure white or light green. Don't be concerned if this means cutting them almost to the ground. Dead growth isn't going to rejuvinate itself. You might have a very uneven looking plant if you cut away only dead wood. Make yourself even it out. As a newbie, I would let longer healthy stems stay. A few weeks you will lop them anyway because the rose looks comical with one or two long stems, and a bunch of six inch stems. Bite the bullet and cut it so that it is more even.

pruning roses

What do you do with tiny canes (defined as smaller in diameter than a pencil)? It's best to cut them off because they are weak and will not support a rose while stealing energy from a cane that can. The last thing that you cut are crossing canes. Cut canes that are growing in the wrong direction (across the center of the plant instead of outward). Look for canes that are rubbing against each other, pick one and remove it. Rubbing canes create damage in the longer run, and that damage is a perfect entryway for insects or disease.

If you have problems with borers you probably know it. You will see holes drilled into the tips of rose canes. At its worst, the insect will drill down the cane to the base and kill it, and possibly enter the roots of your rose and kill the other canes. Having it with one rose does not mean that they all have it, and failing to treat it is normally not fatal (I have had canes drilled without bothering to apply glue and the rose did just fine, thank you), but if you have had experience in the past you may want to apply a bit of ordinary white glue to any pruned cane in excess of half an inch in diameter. Just press a little glue on the tip and that will do it for the season.

pruning roses

If your roses are grafted and you see the growth of suckers (they will look different from the canes and leaves of your original rose), then it is important to dig down to the base of the plant and remove the errant cane. Tear it out, because if you merely cut it it, it will return and bring friends, and the entire rose can revert to the rose on which your chosen rose was grafted. Many roses used for graft stock have vigor (which was why they were chosen) but are incredibly unattractive. Get them out!

On the other hand, if you have an own root rose that forms a sucker, you can allow the smaller plant to develop, and if you choose, you can separate it from the parent and plant it elsewhere, or allow it to develop fully. These pictures display a sucker from an own root rose, 'Rose de Rescht', and shows you what the parent looks like in bloom.

Rose de Rescht and sucker

Mature Rose de Rescht

What about other types of roses?

These rules I have outlined apply generally to all roses but there are a few considerations if you grow different kinds of roses.

If you grow hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas or miniatures, the pruning is a bit more severe. You should cut them back until you have between 3 and 5 healthy canes, spaced fairly evenly around the plant. These roses bloom all season. All of the other instructions above apply.

There is a group referred to as modern shrub roses. These include David Austin English roses, Knockouts, hardy Canadian roses, floribundas, Buck roses and a lot of the roses you see in garden that are not hybrid teas. They flower on fairly mature stems, but not old and woody ones. Don't prune these severely - they don't need it. Let them grow pretty much on their own for two or three years, and then start removing the oldest stems. This way, you keep your roses "young" and blooming well year after year.

What about once blooming and old garden roses?

The once bloomers (albas, gallicas, damasks, as well as centifolias and most mosses) are all pruned bloomed after flowering in the spring or early summer. They tend to need little pruning, in fact, virtually none, and it should be reserved for dead, weak or crossing limbs.

The repeat blooming old garden roses (Bourbons, Hybrid Perpetuals, Chinas and Portlands) bloom on old and new wood, so they can be pruned in early spring and any time during the season if the need arises. Some hybrid perpetuals throw out long canes that can be summer pruned without endangering rebloom.

Climber and Ramblers are best allowed to grow two or three seasons before being pruned at all, other than dead wood. There are a couple of differences. Because most ramblers are once blooming, they are treated like once blooming old garden roses. Climbers are usually repeat blooming, so it is best to cut back the shoots to 3-6 inches and train them a laterally as possible. This is an illustration of the repeat blooming climber, the hardy Canadian climber 'Quadra', being trained laterally. Lateral training produces lots of side shoots, increasing the bloom.

Quadra in early spring

The results can be stunning.

Quadra in bloom

Pruning shears image: [email protected]

Rules of rose pruning: [email protected]

Correct ways to prune roses: [email protected]