It will very soon be that time of year when we focus our attention on the spring pruning of bush roses (Hybrid T and Floribunda roses) in the gardens of our Clients. Rose pruning is one of those gardening tasks that many are nervous about undertaking, but don’t be – In my early career as a Park’s Apprentice it was one of the first things I was taught to do by the Head Gardener at the local Park and it is relatively straightforward, if you follow a few simple steps.
When to Prune
Spring pruning of roses can take place from late February into March, but do be governed by the weather. I recommend avoiding frosty days or periods of cold easterly winds if at all possible.
What we are aiming for in our rose pruning is a bush with well-spaced stems to allow airflow through the plant. Ideally, we are looking for an open middle with well-spaced vigorous shoots around the outside. Keep thinking ‘vase’ shape and you won’t go far wrong (although this is not always possible with older roses!)
Pruning cuts should be approximately 5mm above the nearest bud and the cut should be angled away from it at approximately 30 degrees to allow water run-off.
Always cut to an outward facing bud if possible to encourage an open centred shape.
Cuts should be clean so it is important to keep your pruning tools sharp – rough cuts can be entry points for disease and will encourage die-back.
Root suckers should be traced back to the root and pulled away, not cut, if at all possible.
A Step-by-Step guide
The first job is to remove the three D’s – dead, damaged and diseased wood. Where possible prune back to live wood, but also remember to remove larger dead stubs or branches growing from the base of the plant.
Now remove any crossing or rubbing shoots and spindly stems. If the bush is still crowded select some of the older shoots (anything over 3 years old ideally) and cut them out completely.
We are now left with our framework (6 to 8 strong, healthy stems is ideal) ready for the final cuts to reduce the height of the Rose bush. This framework should ideally consist of shoots no smaller in diameter than your little finger and no larger than your thumb.
The remaining shoots should now be cut to the desired height:
- Reduce to an approximate height of 25cm (10”) leaving 6-8 buds
Hybrid T Roses
- Reduce in height to approximately 15cm (6”) leaving 4-6 buds
If you have inherited a rose and do not know if it is a Hybrid T or Floribunda, it is always best to prune it as a Hybrid T. You can then check in the summer ready for next year’s pruning. A Hybrid T usually has only one large flower per stem, whereas a Floribunda has a cluster of flowers on each stem.
Old overgrown Roses
Of course you may have inherited an old rose, with all the newer growth on top of a longer, larger, more mature and gnarled stem. If this is the case you really have just the two choices:
- If you are happy with the height of the rose as it is, you can choose to prune the rose back to 4-6 buds from the top of the old stem.
- Or, you can risk all and prune the plant hard back, reducing all of the main branches to 15-20cm from ground level. There is no point looking for a suitable bud as you probably won’t find any, but the hard prune should kick start any dormant buds in this older part of the plant.
I was once told by a Head Gardener that ‘ You will never kill a rose boy’ but I wouldn’t go that far! There is always a risk with this type of severe pruning. However, there is also a high chance of success and if the rose dies, well then it was probably ready to be replaced anyway!
Mulching and Fertiliser
Following pruning, spring is a good time to consider fertilising and mulching your rose border. Firstly, lightly cultivate the border (not too deep as you will damage the roots!) and remove any weeds and leaves. Then apply a granular fertiliser – either a general garden fertiliser (such as Growmore) or a more specialised rose fertiliser.
In March/April the ground should be wet enough, but if necessary consider irrigating the border before mulching, particularly if we have one of those not so unusual warm and dry Springs. Now apply the mulch to a depth of 3-6cm (1-2”), making sure when mulching that you do not cover the root-stock (crown) of the roses.
There are a wide variety of suitable mulching products out there, from organic composts and pulverised tree bark to farm yard manure (FYM). If you use FYM, make sure it is at least 2 years old as fresh manure can burn the roots.
And finally…… You can now sit back and look forward to a stunning rose display, courtesy of your sterling efforts in early spring. Later this year, we will include a blog on pests and diseases, dead heading roses and autumn pruning.
If you don’t have any roses, or are thinking of buying roses but are not sure what to buy, we recommend a visit to Castle Park, Colchester and the stunning rose gardens in front of the Castle – early June is a good time to visit. All of the rose varieties here are labelled and, as is tradition, most of them are supplied by our local grower, Cants of Colchester. Many of the varieties on show can still be purchased from them.
Ian Baalham February 2021