Pruning Old Roses

"Pruning a rose bush is not unlike giving a home haircut to a small child: you do the best you can, secure in the knowledge that if it turns out odd-looking, new growth will quickly hide your mistakes."
-Liz Druitt, The Organic Rose Garden

If you talk to six different rosarians about pruning, or read six different rose books, chances are no two will agree. Some will say prune hard for better flowering; others will say prune lightly to avoid dieback and desecration. I happen to be of the conservative and permissive (read: lazy) school of rose pruning. In my opinion, life is too short, thorns are too sharp, and winter afternoons are better spent with a good book and a cup of hot cocoa by the fire. My old roses seem to agree.

I believe that when it comes to pruning old garden roses, the best approach is to learn the habits and requirements of each variety before ever touching your cutters. Let the roses grow for two or three years in your garden, and observe the growth pattern of each type: is it bushy, rigidly upright, or gracefully arching? Try to maintain this characteristic shape when pruning. Take care not to destroy the rose's natural grace: an elegantly arching shrub that has been chopped down to a stubby plant has, it may be said, been butchered.

The only really hard and fast rule that applies to old rose pruning is: Prune immediately after flowering. This means that if a rose blooms only once a year, it should be pruned right after the flowers have finished. But try not to overdo summer pruning, since it can result in loss of too much sap. The repeat or continuous-flowering roses should be pruned when they are dormant, usually in January.

When in doubt, the best policy for old roses is to do nothing. Old garden roses don't need or like the kind of heavy pruning that is beneficial to modern Hybrid Tea roses. The primary goal is to remove dead, weak, or sickly plant material that can drain the energy of the plant, without ruining the shape. Remove all spindly growth and any shoots skinnier than a pencil. Thinning superfluous growth increases sunlight and air circulation to the center of the plant, creating a drier environment that is less hospitable to fungal infections. It also stimulates new cane growth, which brings new flowers.

It's also a good idea to de-foliate rose bushes in January: leave the strong canes intact, but pull off all the leaves and destroy them. This helps prevent diseases from wintering over, and encourages deeper dormancy. Because of our mild winters, many roses don't get as long a winter "nap" as they might like, and will benefit from the induced rest period.

Training old roses is often more important than pruning them. Most will bloom better if the canes are more horizontal than vertical, such as when pegged down or trained along a fence. The bending stimulates the formation of lateral branches or flowering spurs all along the canes, and greatly increases the number of blooms per season. If bushes are left to grow vertically, blossoms will be located only on the tips of the canes. The lateral shoots may be pruned back 1/3 each year.

A final caution about pruning is that very young rose plants need time to grow before they are cut back a lot. If you're planting bare-root roses, skip the first two pruning seasons altogether, other than thinning and removing dead wood, and deadheading the flowers. This allows the plant to fill out and develop its natural shape, and is particularly crucial for roses that only bloom on old wood.

Above all, always remember that roses are meant to be enjoyed. Don't let them become intimidating tyrants or slave drivers. Think of the old roses that survived forgotten in abandoned cemeteries for centuries, and trust that yours will forgive a little benign neglect and flourish.

-Elizabeth

Thanks to Peter Beales, Graham Stuart Thomas, Liz Druitt,
Helen Alta Grier, Gregg Lowery, Miriam Wilkins, and especially Murray Rosen.

ALBAS: These may be trained along fences or pegged to encourage lateral growth. Albas bloom from the second and third year wood, so it is essential that they not be pruned for at least 3 years after they are planted. Some of the Albas form thick, spreading, upright clumps which in time can be divided if they outgrow their space.

BOURBONS: Remove any dead wood and thin the shrub to allow good air circulation. Some schools of pruning say the Bourbons should be left alone; others maintain there will be better blooms if side shoots are cut back in winter to 3 eyes, and main canes reduced by 1/3. Cutting back weak canes stimulates the formation of new canes, which will bloom as the season advances. Some Bourbons, such as Mme. Isaac Pereire, produce their best roses on the wood of the current season, so the autumn crop of flowers will be superior. Some of the larger arching Bourbons can be trained as climbers, or pegged.

CHINAS: These are slow in building up a sturdy bush, so should be pruned very lightly. Cutting the blooms and buds is often sufficient for the first few years. A light spurring back and possibly some thinning in January will suffice from then on. Nearly every new growth will end in a flower.

DAMASKS: Thin lightly, and remove any dead canes. Severe pruning can result in dieback and possible loss of your bush. After flowering, twiggy pieces should be removed, and side shoots may be cut back 1/3 to encourage lower nodes to break and new canes to develop. The Damasks bloom only on older wood, never on new growth. The general habit is quite elegant and should be preserved.

GALLICAS:
Thin as needed, removing old dead canes and any that cross and rub. Very little pruning is needed or wanted by this variety. The shrubs are stout-caned, densely suckering, and tend to arch with the weight of the blooms.

HYBRID MUSK: The Hybrid Musks are healthy and vigorous roses, forming large arching shrubs or small climbers that may be trained along a fence. These varieties are best grown freely, without pruning, allowing the naturally graceful arching growth to develop. They respond well to summer deadheading, which promotes better repeat bloom.

HYBRID PERPETUALS:
These are, for the most part, tall, lusty-growing varieties, often going up 6 to 8 feet. The larger ones are best when pegged or trained along a fence. Some rosarians recommend pruning as you would a very tall Hybrid Tea. Others prefer the arching or pegging method, as bending canes downwards stimulates the growth of lateral branchlets, which bloom. If the flowers are removed, either for bouquets or when spent, cutting back to leave one or two eyes on side branches, other blooms will grow up from the buds which are left, prolonging the blooming season and giving twice or three times the number of blossoms per season.

LARGE-FLOWERED CLIMBERS: The primary goal is to encourage ample climbing shoots, and to encourage those shoots to develop flowering lateral branches. Some climbers bloom on second and third year wood, so it is advisable not to cut out more than one or two canes per season; otherwise, you could get a big bush or vine with no blooms. Letting the climber form a large basal trunk with side branches that can be stubbed back about every third year is a good way to keep the often rampant climbers within bounds. Remove dead blooms; picking back to leave 2 or 3 eyes on the flowering stem can stimulate further bloom a bit later in the season.

NOISETTES: In January, remove only damaged and unsound wood; most Noisettes resent any other pruning. These climbing roses flower upon ripened lateral growth, so training to encourage laterals is especially effective. The lateral shoots can be cut back each year to about 1/3 their length.

PORTLANDS: Light pruning is all that is needed. Cut away spent and twiggy wood in January, and trim back longer side shoots. Regular summer deadheading will promote prolific bloom.

RAMBLERS & WICHURIANA HYBRIDS: Remove dead or very old and weak wood in winter. These varieties bloom only on 2 or 3 year old wood for the first time, then bloom from spurs for several years thereafter. Give them their heads for the first few years until they have formed a dense covering over their supports, then prune very lightly right after flowering. Ramblers growing up into trees, covering large buildings, or sprawling prostrate on banks are best left to their own devices.

ROSA BANKSIAES: These very large growers produce long, thornless, willowy canes, with a tangle of secondary canes and short tertiary flowering wood (the R. banksias flower only on wood that is at least 3 years old). Prune immediately after flowering, thinning lightly and removing just the dead wood. Canes resent cutting and may die back, but if the rose becomes so big it's a nuisance, some pruning and shaping may be necessary.

ROSA MULTIFLORA: Plants produce flowers on new wood. After blooming, old wood may be pruned back to encourage new canes for next year's blooms.

RUGOSAS: The suckering Rugosas require little pruning, other than removal of dead wood. They sometimes seem to resent being cut back, just as they resent spraying, and may respond with dieback. But established Rugosas that have gotten out of hand will recover well from an occasional creative encounter with a chainsaw.

SPECIES ROSES: Little or no pruning is needed. Remove dead wood only, and let them arch or spread as wild roses.

TEA ROSES: These are slow to develop so should be pruned sparingly, just enough to keep them shapely and eliminate old wood; do not prune them just to be pruning. Cutting the blooms is often sufficient for the first few years. Climbing teas should be encouraged to develop laterals along the canes, and the laterals may be pruned back to 1/3 their length. Many of the Teas will try to grow and bloom year-round where winters are mild.