How To Prune Roses

Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.

–F.H. Burnett, The Secret Garden

I planted a garden last night in the dark. My landscaper mother tried to talk me out of it, but I did it anyway… because I’m 24. Ha! The summer air was 80 degrees at 9:30 pm and something inside me snapped. The herb box I had been talking about for months needed to happen right then. So I drove to Home Depot for a window box, Trader Joe’s for the herbs, and got dirt from my mother’s home. Out on my apartment patio, ignoring the hushed conversation from The Russian on his deck above, I didn’t even bother to put on gloves. I wanted to feel the cool dirt, sift through the roots and rocks, and fondle the small plants with deepest gratitude. When I finished, they got a quick drink and I stood back with a smile… “Welcome friends!”

Some of my earliest memories are gardening with my mom and grandmother. One of my favorite books is still The Secret Garden. My first college job was grounds worker. “You are from dust, and to dust you shall return.” Amen!

It was a natural request, then, when my beau asked if I could prune his yard’s roses. He, too, comes from a gardening family but preferred the tree trimming over thorn evading (I think he really wanted to show off those biceps…but don’t tell him I know). Anywho, I got my stool and clippers and sat down with somber respect. For a long minute I just sat looking at the rose plant’s structure, much like a surfer reads the waves before diving in. Where are the old stems, where is the new growth, where are the stubborn canes trying to shoot up, stealing the nutrients? Are there aphid insects, old leaves, dead gnarly knobs?

When I had surmised the job, I set to work delicately but confidently. Roses should be pruned back twice a year – typically spring and end of fall – with “deadheading” as necessary (snipping off dead blooms). Your end goal is to encourage new, silky growth for bigger blooms so don’t be afraid of a few necessary casualties in the process.

For a decent pruning, one third of the plant (vertically) needs to be removed. (**Note, we are assuming a rose bush, and not a tree or climbing vine**) The most important rule for shaping a rose plant is to keep the center clear. Don’t let a healthy but obstinate branch jet through the center to the other side; give the branches room to breathe.

You’ll notice that along with thorns and leaves, the stems also contain small rosy joints, dotted on different places of the stem’s circumference. This is where the discernment enters, and you must make decisions. To keep that center clear, you want to cut the stem at a diagonal on whichever joint faces OUT and UP. The new growth will begin at this cut, so choose wisely encouraging a taller, bushier…bush.

Make your way slowly through all the branches, snipping off smaller ones that won’t bloom but will use the plant’s valuable energy. Pull off deadening leaves, leaving the new ones for photosynthesis and regeneration.

Strong, sturdy, rich green canes will often shoot up directly from ground level at the root ball.  They will look pretty, and often bloom. Don’t be fooled. Cut them away quickly. They will rob the plant like a lover, then die out as quickly as they spring up, leaving the rosebush’s resources depleted and behind schedule.

To give you a timeline, it took me two hours to adequately prune six roses. While you cut away for new growth, meditate on those things in your life that need “pruning”… and get to work!