Tending Shrub Roses

Story and photos provided by Dr. Cheryl Boyer

Spring has sprung! It seems that many plants are racing to get started on the growing season this year. Daffodils, quince, magnolia…oh my! Traditionally, I wait until I see the first forsythia blooms before I consider pruning my shrub roses in the Spring, but this year the buds were swelling and leaves beginning to pop out well before I saw the bright yellow shrubs pop out in the landscape. Fortunately, there is always time to prune. There may be consequences for pruning certain plants at non-ideal times (they might not bloom that year), but my philosophy is when you’re ready to prune, prune. It’s easier when the plants don’t yet have leaves, but if a plant is getting in your way every time you mow during the summer then prune off the annoying part as soon as possible (good pruning cuts, please!).

Always cut at an angle.

Last year I mentioned pruning my roses, but I think I simplified the process too much. That happens when things become second nature, like tying your shoes or pumping gas. Have you ever thought about all the steps involved in those things? My 6-year-old son is currently learning to tie his shoes. For the life of me I can’t figure out how to describe what I’m doing (neither can my husband). I’ve heard that YouTube has some great videos he can pause and rewatch. We’ll try that. Same goes for pumping gas—there are something like 15 steps involved, from selecting an available pump, to parking your vehicle, entering your loyalty card and payment information, selecting a fuel grade, actually pumping the gas, putting everything away and then driving away. There are a lot of decisions involved in that simple process, right? The same is true for pruning, though I would argue that it’s actually simpler than tying shoes or pumping gas.

The first thing you need are a good pair of pruning shears (I like Felco, but I also have a nice pair from Stihl). Depending on the size of your plants you might also need a small pruning saw. My plants are getting big enough that I need such a tool on occasion. I’d recommend long pants and sleeves as well as some gardening gloves that you like, especially if you’re working with thorny roses. Sun protection is a good idea, too. Lastly, you need an 18-inch long stick. Yeah, a stick. Doesn’t matter what it’s made of—mine is an old bamboo plant stake. Low tech, for the win!

Why 18-inches? Well, that’s what works best for my shrub roses. Clearly, they need to be cut back or they become unmanageable (fine for large commercial sites, not so fine for a small residential lot), but what height? I’ve tried 12-inches. I’ve tried 24-inches. The first was truly too much. The plants struggled that year. At 24-inches, you could really see where the plants had been cut off and the new growth stood out in an odd way. At 18-inches you can clear out the riff-raff, direct structural growth and still leave enough resources for the plants to grow to 5½ to 6 feet tall during the summer. That’s just right in my opinion.

What things do you need to consider after height has been established? Well, cleaning out dead or diseased branches is important. Then, I select for (keep) branches that are headed up and out—not going into the canopy of the plant or growing too close to each other, causing damage. Making sure there is good air flow will help reduce disease (though I see very little disease in my Double Pink Knockout Roses). After those choices are made, I cut next to a bud that points outward, helping to direct future growth. That’s it! I spin around my shrubs with my 18-inch stick and make decisions about where to cut. I’m not saying it’s the fastest process ever, but it’s not all that slow and I really enjoy the work. In the end, I’m almost always pleased with how the pruning went and am rewarded with bountiful blooms all season long—no other management required. What’s on your garden tending list this year?