In the San Jose and surrounding Bay Area, roses never really go dormant, as our climate is mild. However, roses do rest and this is a very similar and vital process to their longevity and health. You may feel a strong urge to do something to rose bushes right after they have stopped blooming. Stop! Don’t do it! It is after they have done their work that they rest and collect starches and sugars and go into dormancy.
In the Bay Area, many debate on whether rose bushes should be pruned in spring or winter. You can try experimenting with both approaches. We’ve seen success both ways, but for this blog, we are going to focus on the most traditional time to prune rose bushes, in winter.
We never know how erratic the weather will be for the next two month up here in Santa Clara County and the surrounding Bay Area. Our advice in summary, once “dormancy” (ahem, actually rest) is safely proven – when you are sure there won’t be another freeze -this is when you need to prune ASAP.
First, Pull out the Correct Rose Pruning Tools
Pruning requires certain equipment to prevent injury to yourself, or the rosebush.
Rose thorns are vicious, particularly when winter has whittled them hard and sharp, so wear gardening gloves. We suggest leather gloves for rose pruning so the thorns can’t poke through the gardening glove. You will need gardening shears, the same you use for cutting and maintenance will do just fine.
Next, Strip the Rose Bush before Pruning
Never skip this step! Strip rose bushes of all foliage two weeks before you prune. You may need to keep an eye on the 10 day forecast to plan this out correctly. Once the leaves are removed, the rose bush is given a signal to rejuvenate the foliage process.
The first sign bushes are bouncing back is when you spot swollen eyes where new growth is to appear – at the joining place of leaf formations and stems. When rosebushes are resting (or dormant) the eyes are not visible, but when they begin to grow (accelerated by stripping the rose bush) they will turn red and swell. These are your incision spots for making cuts in the right places.
The vitality and strength of rose wood can be determined by examining the pith (interior wood) within the bark. Green or milky white is healthy. Brown or blackened wood is dead or very old and will not produce blooming roses. Fresh wood is also much easier to cut that deadwood. You’ll learn quickly the difference by the pressure on your shears, so be extra careful!
Remove all twiggy growth, unhealthy wood or deadwood, and weak or broken tall growth (if the tall growth is twiggy and waves in the breeze, it’s time for it to go). Split bark is also a sign of bark to be removed at this time.
Next, Decide how Severely to Prune the Rosebush.
Depending on where you live, the space you have, and your gardening goals for this rosebush; this will guide you on how severe to prune your rose bushes. Light pruning requires a minimum of cutting, removing only twiggy or deadwood, and leaves the rosebush tall. Light pruning will result in short-stemmed blooms on a large rosebush. You may favor moderate pruning if you have garden display in mind your are attempting to design. Moderate pruning leaves 6 to 10, 1 1/2’ to 3 1/2’ canes per bush, depending upon its growth habits. Usually half the length of each cane is removed. Severe pruning leaves only three to four canes, sometimes less than 1’ tall.
Pruning height will vary by variety. Bushes don’t grow the same; they can not be pruned identically. Some grow tall, and no pruning technique you apply is going to make a difference! In fact, if you try to manipulate some of the natural growth patterns, they may spend their time during growing season to get back to the height at which they are most happy for blooming. Until they get there, they may not bloom at all (stubborn lil’ rosebushes!).
Now, Begin Cutting the Rosebush
Once you’ve pruned the rosebush to a height that suits you, look carefully for dormant eyes, which will be readily apparent to you if you’ve stripped bushes of foliage two weeks before pruning (see step #1!). Make cuts a 1/4″ above the eyes that point outward from the center of the bush (the direction in which you want new growth to develop). Angles formed by cuts are ideally 45 degrees, with the downward slope toward the rosebush’s center.
Lastly, Critique Your Pruning Techniques and Heed our Advice
Expert advice to remember: You can always take growth out, but you can never graft it back onto the rosebush. Well-cared-for rose bushes may last for more than 50 years, and the bud union will become big and gnarled. Remember that new canes are produced every year and are considered young only for the first two years, then middle-aged for one year. After that, they are old. How did the rosebushes make it through winter? Did they bloom as expected in spring? Note your techniques year after year, the results of your efforts, review them each fall or winter, and you’ll be an expert rose gardener in no time!