When I moved to my new place last year we had a huge ‘Peace’ rose. It did the job of flowering brilliantly until about mid-July, and then it just stopped despite my sister’s attempts to keep it deadheaded and looking sharp. This is a problem with many roses as they get older, and it is not uncommon for this to start showing up a couple of years after planting. The solution to this drop in productivity is pruning.
PruningPruning is not just random hacking at a plant with any handy sharp object. Pruning is removing specific plant parts for a specific reason. In the case of most roses (and there are always exceptions) the rose flower will only grow on this year’s growth. In other words, if the branch did not grow this year, a flower will not appear on it. Once you know this it will tell you most of what you need to do to make a rose healthy and happy.
Clear Out Dead WoodThe problem with my old rose is that it had not been pruned for many years and had reached its full height and reach. That means that the only new growth it made was replacements for limbs that had died in the previous year. And although the rose bush was full of dead wood, it was a build up of a little dead each year for many years so I had very little new wood to support flowers late into the season. And I had a ton of dead wood blocking light to the lower part of my plant. The solution for this was to trim the plant back substantially in the late winter, just before the rose started growing. I started by clearing out the dead wood by cutting it off right at the base of the bush. While this sounds simple, it is a pain on any plant that has not been pruned in a good while. Much of the newer growth had weaved its way around old dead limbs to find the best sunlight, making the entire bush a tangled mess. Some of the branches I wished to save were torn up in the process of getting the old branches removed.
Remove Old BranchesOnce you have all the dead out, stand back and look at the rose. What are the largest, oldest limbs? How thick is the growth in the center region of the bush, and how many misdirected branches are there? Once I have a good feel for this I start trimming the center of the rose and selectively removing the oldest branches. These two steps alone will stimulate the rose to grow vigorous new branches that will be capable of providing a lot of healthy new roses next year. After taking out about a fourth of the interior and old branches I step back and look at the plant again. Usually it is a bit out of balance because the oldest branches are almost always off center on an uncared for rose. After noting where the biggest problems are I go in and try to balance it a little bit. I never get it well balanced in the first year of renovating a rose, especially when it is my rose. However, balance is much more important when I am doing work for a customer. Enforcing symmetry is not a top concern for me, but it is for many of those I work for, so I have to make a judgment call based on what expectations are.
Remove Odd Branches, Old Rose Hips, & Spent FlowersI finish off the work by removing most of the oddly placed small branches and trimming all of the old rose hips and spent flowers. Even though a rose can usually handle having everything cut down to 12” above the ground, I like to make sure I leave enough that the rose looks good the first year of renovation. This is especially important if you are working with a rose that has been planted for many decades. They seem to have a harder time recovering from a heavy pruning. In subsequent years you can do much lighter pruning to give the bush the balance it needs. But you should take out all the dead every year and remove some of the older branches to make way for new growth that will help keep fresh wood for a lot of new flowers. You should also remove all of the spent flowers from the top of the plant through out the year. This will increase your chance of new flowers through the season with any roses that are know for there ability to re-bloom.