Most information you find about rose pruning is generic for all growing zones. What everyone waits for is the threat of frost to pass after the dormant season. The cuts expose tender plant tissue that is vulnerable to disease and damage. Pruning also induces new growth to push, and any new growth that is damaged by frost could potentially damage the whole cane.
I prune roses (Rosa spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) in January. If I wait much longer, the plants can already show new growth, and I feel horribly guilty cutting it away. This is the typical hard and thorough pruning that is done in all zones. The main goals of this pruning are to reduce plant size, open up the center for air circulation, and promote outward growth. How much you reduce depends a lot on what type of rose you are pruning, its age, where in the border it is located, and your own preference for height and flower production. For example, I prune all of mine to a maximum of 18 inches and completely remove anything that is growing up into or crossing the center. Cut away all dead canes as far back as you can, and remove all leaves. As with any type of pruning, I always recommend starting from the outside and working my way in and down gradually. After all, you can always keep cutting more, but you can never glue anything back on.
To encourage the plant to grow into a V-shape, cut about half an inch above an outward facing bud eye. That bud eye will become your new growth, and by pruning you are orchestrating the shape of your rose. Prune stems at a 45° angle, cutting down and away from the bud eye so that any water will not flow onto the bud.
Since we have a longer flowering season here in Southern California, I also recommend another pruning in August. This will encourage a second, hearty bloom cycle in October. This pruning does not need to be as hard-core and meticulous. The goal is more to reduce the amount of stem and leaf material so the plants can focus their energy on putting forth flowers. I usually trim my own roses to 4 feet or less, and I am not looking necessarily for the bud eyes but will snip above an outward-facing leaflet. Again, no matter the reason for cutting, always cut 45° from the outside, slanting down toward the center of the plant. It is sometimes a bit agonizing to prune at this time of year because there are still quite a few roses flowering and budding on the shrubs. This is a good opportunity to grab however many vases you need to fill and bring them into your house. Or give some to a neighbor. If I do this for a client, I ask her to leave me some vases on the front porch, and she comes home from work to find some lovely bouquets.
Cut off any dead wood that is easily accessible, and pull off any dead leaves. Make sure to always have a nice layer of mulch around your roses. One of the benefits of mulch is to act as a blanket to help protect the roots from extremes of temperature—heat as well as cold.
My go-to tool for year-round rose care is cut-and-hold pruners from Wildflower Seed & Tool Co. This tool holds on to the stem until you release the handle, which saves an awful lot of scratches on my hands and arms, as well as snags on clothing. Especially wonderful is the Short Reach model, which is 2 feet long. If you have any sort of back issues, this is the tool for you, as it saves you from a lot of bending over. If you are dexterous enough, you can hold your cup of coffee in your left hand while you prune with your right!
Francesca Corra, APLD is a nationally certified Landscape Designer and owner of Dirt Diva Designs located in Studio City, California.
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