Arm yourself and get ready to prune the roses in your garden

Published 2:56 pm Sunday, February 25, 2007

If you regard pruning roses with dread, you might find it comforting to think of yourself as a sculptor who is fashioning a new and more attractive statue. Only this one is a living plant.

Mid to late February is the month to prune roses here, so if you haven’t yet shaped up your rose bushes, now’s the time. Every year, when I sharpen my pruning shears and don protective gear to protect me from wicked thorns, I always wonder what insanity came over me to fill my garden with roses from ground to tree level. With more than 70 roses of various varieties, from tiny miniatures to sprawling climbing roses that reach 20 feet, I sometimes think it would have been easier if I had fallen in love with daylilies, or daisies, or perennials that go dormant and dieback all by themselves. Yet with the first flush of spring bloom, I’m intoxicated again with the queen of flowers.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few techniques to speed up the process and make it more enjoyable.

Email newsletter signup

First, arm yourself with the best tools you can buy. There’s a reason that Felco, Fiskars, and other top quality pruning shears and loppers are costly. They’re well designed and help reduce muscle fatigue. This is very important when you’re pruning dozens of bushes in a day. Be sure that they are very sharp. I have mine professionally sharpened every January so they make quick, smooth cuts right where I want them. You will need several different types of pruners. Use a classic bypass pruning shear for most floribunda and hybrid tea roses. A tool belt or container is useful so you don’t lose the shears in the midst of leaves or canes while you’re working. Thick canes require a heftier tool, and that’s when you need to reach for loppers. The extra length gives better leverage. Some canes can grow so thick that you need to remove them or prune with a pruning saw, either a folding or stationary one. Some dedicated rose fanciers use bonsai tools or scissors to prune miniature roses. But if you’re not exhibiting them, you can save time by shearing mini roses at ground level. They’re growing on their own roots and will shoot out new canes with a flourish.

Next, protect yourself. Wear durable gloves, preferably with gauntlets to protect your arms. I tend to avoid gloves because I like the feel of soil, flowers and tools in my hands. But a session with a climbing rose changed my attitude. One year I was pruning Cl. Dortmund, a vigorous red-flowered climber renowned for wicked thorns. I was trying to do the job in a short-sleeved shirt and no gloves. I persevered but realized I was foolish when a friend asked if I had been in a car accident because of all the deep scratches on my arms. During winter dormancy, canes are stiffer, and thorns are dried out and more lethal.

Now you’re ready to help your roses prepare for a new year of luxuriant blooms. In general, remove one-third to one-half of last year’s growth. Remove dead canes, crossing canes, and weak,spindly growth that won’t produce any worthwhile flowers. Remove all leaves and cart them away. They’re probably harboring disease spores like blackspot. It’s a good practice to dip your shears in a solution of bleach (wipe shear after dipping) so you don’t accidentally transmit rose diseases from bush to bush. Also, seal cut canes with so borers can’t enter. You can use nail polish or glue.

Complete the pruning by cleaning up any weeds growing around the roses. Now is the time to add a large handful of Epsom salts at the base of each bush. This helps encourage basil breaks, those healthy new canes that emerge from the bud union. Don’t fertilize the bushes until the new growth is at least two inches long.

Karen Dardick writes a monthly column about roses and rose gardening. She can be reached by e-mail at