When Master Gardeners offered its members a rose pruning workshop at the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden, I jumped at the opportunity. I may only have three roses myself, but I wanted to be sure that if my clients had roses that I'd be getting it right.
Roses seem to have a reputation for being delicate, pernickety plants that gardeners have to coax along and pander to. Don't be fooled. Sure, they can have their fair share of diseases, but when it comes to low water, heat tolerance and frost hardiness they are tough little garden soldiers.
Back home, when it came to pruning roses I pulled no punches. Those babies got hacked to within inches (usually between 4 and 8) of their lives and they always came back with full astonishing bloom.
But it doesn't have to be like that here. John R, the MG who showed me how its done in the Golden State, was a fabulous teacher. I came away with at least three new things that I either didn't know or that changed the way I'd previously pruned. To me that's a hugely successful workshop.
So here's "Pruning Roses in Santa Clara County 101"
1 Don protective clothing - leather gloves, denim shirt and a hat.
2 Bypass pruners and lopers are the tools you will need.
3 Begin at the base of the rose bush. Clear away leaf-litter and identify the graft union. This is a bulbous scarred area, usually near the base, where the rose you want is grafted to its root stock. Anything growing below this a sucker and you don't want it.
4 Tear away any suckers. Previously, I'd been clipping off my suckers but, as John pointed out, this left behind growing material, so I always had a recurrence of these suckers. Ripping them out takes more away and helps prevent regrowth. So far we haven't used those pruners or lopers yet.
5 Next, and this I found hard at first, defoliate the bush. Take off every leaf you see.
This is all last years leaves and will contribute little by way of photosynthesis, especially if the leaves are diseased in any way. Removing them tricks the rose bush into a sense of dormancy, promotes new growth and helps prevents spread of rust and black spot.
6 Before we pick up the pruners, identify the growing points. They are nubs of tissue along the stem, more fleshy than the thorns and not prickly. You'll also find them at the base of the petioles of the leaves you removed.
In the above photo the thorns are beige and the growing points are purple.
7 Remove dead branches, anything less than a pencil thickness (that was another hint from John) and any branches crossing or otherwise growing the wrong way. Some of this is also subject to aesthetics. If you have two bushes growing close to each other, you want to prune them so that you can separate them out. In the above photo, I took out one of those crossing branches. This opens up the middle and helps prevent disease. It reminded me of the rules for fruit tree pruning.
8 Choose growing points that point in the direction you want the bush to grow - usually up- and outwards.
9 Leave about an inch of stem between the cut and the growing tip. Here's one I did a little too close last year. The tip may not grow.
Another Master Garden told me that if you ask 10 rose experts how to prune you will be told 15 different ideal ways how to do it!
Bottom line - don't be afraid of "hurting" your rose. Chances are anything you do at this stage will benefit rather than stunt your rose garden. As John Hammond said in that great work of literature Jurassic Park, "And if we could only step aside and trust in nature, life will find a way. "
If it works for extinct dinosaurs, I'm sure it will apply to half dead looking roses!