Cutting back

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Proper pruning ensures spring growth on roses

By Greg Summers

Roses always make a dazzling appearance on Valentine’s Day.


But if you want the roses planted in your yard to cause a similar stir in upcoming months, now is the time to get started.

February is still too early to cut back many plants, but it is the perfect time to prune roses.

“The old story goes that if you prune roses on President’s Day, you’ll have blooms on Mother’s Day,” said Betsy Steele of Lancaster Garden Club.

Repeated bloomers, such as floribunda, hybrid tea and shrub roses need a heavy annual pruning just as the buds break dormancy, which starts in mid- to late February. Climbing roses, tree roses and old-fashioned varieties are pruned differently.

“These varieties are very particular,” Steele said. “They need to be pruned correctly so they will bloom properly. With the hybrid tea (roses), there is a definite need for exact care.”

The goal of pruning all roses is to create new growth and to keep the plants healthy by allowing more light and air to penetrate into the center of the bush.

It not only removes dead, broken and diseased canes (dead branches), but trains roses into a desired shape. That, in turn, encourages larger-sized roses and also helps create longer stems and more attractive bushes.

“If you don’t prune, they’ll continue to grow, but there’s no direction,” she said. “They just won’t bloom like you want them to. They become leggy and you won’t get a compact plant with lush greenery on it. Pruning encourages all the foliage.”

Some horticulturists recommend pulling off all the leaves when pruning to reduce the carry-over risk of black spot fungus on the old leaves.

Steele said that should be done on a case-by-case basis.

“If they look healthy, I’d say no,” she said. “You’re after any discoloration or black spot.”

Steele said if discolored and diseased leaves must be removed, they should be picked up. She said rainfall and watering will scatter the spores from the diseased leaves that fall beneath the bushes.

“If you can keep them clean, you’re going to be better off,” she said.

According to the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service, pruning roses is a balancing act. Pruning too early can cause buds to start growing in mild weather only to be killed by a late-season frost. Pruning too late can weaken plants, since the sap has already started to flow, causing a loss of sap.

The key is to check for new growth that’s just starting to bud, said Paul Thompson, regional horticulture expert for Clemson Cooperative Extension Service.

“Typically, Valentine’s Day is an easy day to remember pruning because of its association with roses. If you wait for the buds to swell, you are pruning back a vigorous bud that’s going to give you an exceptional cane,” Thompson said. 

“You aren’t going to see much growth right now, so it’s a good time to prune,” Steele said. “The way our temperatures rise and lower this time of year, you sometimes have to provide some protection. That little bit of new growth is going to be nipped.”


The first step is to remove any dead, dying or diseased wood from the rose bush.

“It’s very important that your pruning shears be extremely sharp to get a clean cut,” Steele said. “If you really want to lessen the chances of spreading any possible disease, dip them in alcohol before making each cut.” 

With your pruning shears, cut the dead canes where they connect at the base. Your cuts should be at 45-degree angles so the new growth will face up and out. You should also remove dead wood from any rose bush in the fall to protect the bush from potential wind damage.

Next, check the color of the dead wood where you cut it back. If the center is white, the cut is sufficient. If the center is brown, cut further down the cane to ensure that you are removing all of the dead wood. Steele said healthy wood is greenish-white inside the cane.

After checking the canes for color, cut away any thin growth or twigs. Look for canes that overlap or touch each other. Remove one of them. Canes that touch can spread disease in your rose bush.

Cut back each cane on your rose bush to half its height. Look for a bud that’s facing outward and make your cut 1/4-inch above the bud at a 45-degree angle.

Steele said this moderate pruning method is most often recommended for hybrid teas and floribundas. Cutting back the canes to a third of their length can make rose bushes spindly. Hard pruning (cutting the canes down to about 4 inches in height) should only be done to rejuvenate neglected and weak roses.

After the roses are pruned, all of the debris should be removed and disposed of. Leaving cuttings – whether they are dead, diseased or healthy – lying around can attract pests, as well as impact the health of your rose bush.

“If you do that (get rid of trimmings), you’ll be on good footing,” Steele said.

Once you’re done, Steele recommends sprinkling about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) around each plant and then slightly working it into the soil before watering.

“Organic matter is wonderful, but Epsom salts is really good,” she said.

Before doing that, Thompson said it’s also a good idea to have Clemson University perform an annual soil analysis.

“She’s probably right, but you don’t want to add it if it’s not needed,” he said. “A lot of soil nutrients are water soluble. The nutrients you need can change year to year. Roses, turf and beds should be tested until you notice a trend. If the plants look healthy and you’re not fertilizing them, you probably don’t need to test the soil.”