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This Weekend: Pruning, especially roses

If you haven't done so already, now is the time to prune your roses.  You will find a TON of information out there about rose pruning, some of it quite complicated, and oftentimes conflicting.  It might even make you give up entirely, or hire out the job.  But don't despair!  Rose pruning is actually quite easy, and I find the focused clip-clip-clip very restorative mentally.  And it's nice to imagine the blooms that will be here in a couple months!  (The picture above is my garden in May.)

Here are a few tips to help you feel confident to get out there into the roses this weekend:

1. Roses are tough. 

Whatever beginner pruning job you do, they'll recover.  So relax, and don't worry that you'll ruin them forever.

2.  There are several types of roses. 

Each type grows a bit differently, and likes somewhat different pruning.  A few minutes of internet searching will give you an idea of the wide variety of types and conflicting advice about how to treat them, and that's where the confusion comes in.  There are really only two main things to remember when pruning, though.  

First is to know if your rose flowers on new or old growth.  Most roses bloom on new growth, meaning that the rose doesn't have flower buds yet.  They will grow along with the new growth this spring.  Chances are if you have an unknown rose in your garden, it flowers on new growth and can be pruned now.  Roses that bloom on old growth set their flower buds last fall, and if you prune now, you'll cut off all the flowers.  How can you tell the difference?  Well, I found out that I have a rose that flowers on old growth because I pruned it back this time last year, and got no flowers at all.  And yes, I was a bit sad not to get flowers last year, but now I know that I should wait to prune it until after it flowers this year!  

Second is to know whether it's a rose that does better left alone, or if it likes to be pruned.  Some of the bigger climbing and shrubby roses don't need an annual prune to look their best.  They just climb up and over walls, fences and trees making abundant displays without any interference from you.  If you have this type, you'll notice, because they're usually quite big, and grow long reaching branches.  (Over time they can become crowded and overgrown and should be cut back occasionally to a framework of branches to reinvigorate them.)  The other rose types will flower more abundantly with an annual prune.

3.  Always use sharp tools!

Sharpen your clippers before you start!  Clean cuts heal more quickly, and are less likely to let in disease.  You don't need to coat the cuts with anything, just leave them to dry out in the air.

4.  Always cut just above a node

Nodes are the spots along the stem where a bud will emerge.  Always cut just above one.  Leaving extra growth above the node will lead to a section of dead wood that invites disease.

I like to cut above a node that points outwards, to encourage open, goblet-shaped growth.  But lots of experts say it doesn't really matter, as long as the cut is just above the node.

5.  Start with the three D's:  Dead, Damaged, Diseased

Look over your rose for any branches showing the three D's.  Damaged is the easiest to spot because it's torn or broken.  And once you've been looking a while, Dead is easy to spot too.  Even without leaves on the plant, dead stems and live stems are quite different.  Dead will be a darker more muted brown.  Live will usually have a bit of color to the bark.  Dead won't have buds swelling in the nodes, Live will look ready to burst into life (if you look closely).  Diseased is harder to tell, because often the symptoms will appear only on the leaves.  Keep an eye on your plant through the growing season to see if leaves have signs of disease (spots, rusty powder, etc) and then look at the stems to see if the disease shows any telltale signs on the bark.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

6.  Cut out crossing and crowding stems

Anywhere that stems are rubbing against one another, remove one.  And where stems are growing bunched closely together, thin them out

7.  Reduce what's left by about 1/3

Bring the overall height of the rose down by about a 1/3 and you're done.  This is where you may want to get deep into the internets of rose pruning.  Some swear that roses should be cut almost to the ground, while others recommend leaving a framework of taller stems.  Either way, the plant will be fine. The difference will be in how many flowers you get, and how much new growth.  As you get to know your roses, I think it's a good idea to try a few different things and see what happens, and what results you like best.

Over the past couple years, I've found this rose does well pruned on the lighter side.  Who knows, maybe next year I'll experiment with a hard prune almost to the ground.  But this year, I've left lots of stems.

Pruning other small trees and shrubs

The same guidelines apply to pruning other small trees and shrubs this time of year.  Remove the three D's, remove crossing and crowded stems, and create an open shape (for air and light) that's pleasing to you.  Remember though, that late winter pruning encourages more growth!  

The main plants not to prune now are spring flowering ones like magnolia, cherry, and spring flowering clematis, because you'll loose blooms if you prune!


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