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Paul's Point of View Blog

Pruning Shrub Roses

With spring on the way it soon will be time to give some thought to pruning your shrub roses.  I find it fascinating that most gardeners either forget & neglect this important task or falsely assume that there is no maintenance issues with shrub roses.  Such sloppy gardening will only catch up with you in time when your rose grows far too big for its space or you eventually end up with a tangle of dead canes and plants with poor shape.


Pruning now during the dormant season is done for several reasons.  Height control, cane density, & plant shape are all factors that can be manipulated with good pruning.  The age/size of the rose & the condition of the plant after over wintering will determine how much pruning is needed.


I find it easiest to wait until my shrub roses bud out (usually early April) before pruning so I can easily see which canes are alive or not & I can also prune each cane to an outside bud!  Once the buds swell out but before the leaves unfurl is a great time to prune roses. 


The first step is to prune off any dead canes to ground level (or bud level if the plant was budded & not own root).  If any canes have dead tips but are alive farther down, prune those canes to the first live outside bud.  All your pruning cuts should be to an outside bud as this allows the new growth to grow outward away from the center of the plant & not inward.  Buds found on the side of the cane facing away from the center of the plant are outside buds. 


Next I try to shape the plant if needed.  Sometimes a rose can put out some long irregular canes during the previous season that give the plant a misshapen appearance or can also be a bit lopsided if the previous season’s growth was greater on one side of the plant than the other.  This can be corrected by pruning back or entirely pruning out so the plant has a decent uniform shape. 


If  your shrub rose is several years old & seems quite large & vigorous then I add two more steps.  First I will prune some of the canes to ground level even though they are alive just to thin out the plant.  Having too many canes can be a problem because of reduced airflow & increased shading which increases the possibility of fungal problems.  I prefer to have no more than 6 canes for an old plant & no less than 3!


Next I will reduce cane height to 12”-2’ depending on plant vigor.  For most of my shrub roses, trimming back cane height to 12” is just fine.  However, on Carefree Delight I find that they are not quite as vigorous so I usually prune them back to 12” one year & to 24” the next.  Remember, prune to an outside bud!


Once you get used to it, pruning is not a difficult task.  With experience it goes rather quickly & your roses will be far better for it. So don’t forget to drag out the pruning shears & your shrub roses will reward you for the effort.


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