Pruning Roses in the Winter

Winter need not be the end of gardening, even if you live where snow flies.  In fact, once the ground is good and frozen, or your plants are fully dormant for the winter, it is time for pruning!  Woody plants that flower on new growth are good candidates for winter pruning.  If your plants flower on old growth, you do not want to prune until immediately after they fininsh flowering because you will cut off the flower buds.  That means, no pruning of forsythia, some hydrangeas, azaleas and other spring-blooming plants.  If you feel the need to get out your pruning shears and head out into the garden, work on your roses.

Rose Pruning Basics

There are some pretty basic rose pruning techniques that will serve you well, no matter which type of rose you are working with--Hybrid Tea, Floribunda or Modern Shrub Rose.  (You have to be careful with climbers in terms of winter pruning.  Some climbing roses flower on old growth.)

These techniques work with all roses:

  • Always prune out crossing branches.  Use your eye and don't be afraid.  Roses suffer from mildew and fungal problems if there is not enough air circulation.  Removing crossing branches will help open the inside of the plant for air movement.
  • To further open up the plant, prune out more branches that are growing in toward the center of the plant.  You do not want to prune out all of these or you will end up with a hollow vase-looking plant.  A rule of thumb, though, is to prune just above an outward-facing bud.  When that bud breaks, or sprouts, in the spring, the branch will grow out, away from the plant.
  • Check for crowding at the base of the plant.  Some roses sucker more than others.  You do not want the stems to cluster right next to each other all over the plant or they might inadvertently end up girdling each other.
  • Height is a personal preference.  I would not recommend cutting a rose shrub all the way to the ground unless you want to drastically reduce its size, but roses can survive a pretty harsh pruning.

Type-Specific Pruning

  • Hybrid Tea roses:  These are truly the "delicate flower" of the rose family.  That said, they do benefit from a hard winter pruning.  Cut stems back about 2/3 of the way, remembering to cut back to an outward-facing bud.  (This is especially important in hybrid teas because you are growing for their flowers, not for shrubiness, and they are much affected by airflow problems.)  You will also want to thin canes, or stems, that are three years old or older to renew the plant.
  • Floribundas:  These require a hard pruning as well to prevent the inside of the plant from becoming overly crowded with small twigs.  In the winter, when the floribunda plant is dormant, remove any large, old stems completely to the ground.  Cut back newer, longer stems to about 2 ft.  Cut back any remaining smaller branches to aobut six inches long.  You will be left with a drastically reduced mass, but it will re-sprout in the spring, refreshed.
  • Modern Shrub Roses:  All roses are shrubs, but not all are pruned to achieve a shrubby habit.  Shrub roses are pruned to maintain shrubbiness, as they are able to handle this type of growth without succumbing to fungal problems.  In the winter, thin out very small twigs, and reduce the height back by 1/3 to 2/3.

Roses are great for winter gardeners because they give you an excuse for getting out in the garden, on even the coldest of days!

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