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Pruning Roses In Iowa In Five Easy Steps

Pruning roses is part art, part science. Get started on pruning roses like a pro by learning the basics.

By Veronica Lorson Fowler
The Iowa Gardener

new buds on a rose branch in springLearning to prune roses perfectly is a little like learning how to make a good pie crust perfectly. It takes practice and over the years, you figure out how to do it just right.
   And even when it’s not perfect, its still awfully good!

Timing is important. Each spring, about the time the crocuses start to bloom in late March, Iowa roses need to be pruned.
   Why? Pruning gets rid of unsightly and disease-attracting dead wood and also trains the rose to grow in an attractive, uniform manner. Without pruning, a rose bush will become an tangled mass of canes (branches) that crowd and rub together, inviting disease and cutting back dramatically on bloom.
   Lower-growing, bushy roses, such as hybrid teas, shrub roses, and floribundas, are pruned differently than climbing roses. Here we focus almost solely on the bushy roses, certainly the most common in Iowa where only a few super-hardy cultivars of climbing roses will grow.
   The best way to learn how to prune roses is to simply do it. You'll be a bit bewildered at first, but after doing it for a few years—and seeing that your roses will hardly give up the ghost because you made one false cut—you'll gain confidence and skill. And maybe even have fun.

Step One:
Decide When to Prune Your Roses
Prune roses in early spring (March or early April) when they first start to send out tiny red buds that will eventually turn into shoots, then branches. These buds let you determine what existing wood is live and what wood is not. Plus, the direction that the buds grow will help you decide where and how to make your cuts.

Step Two:
Remove Dead Wood
If there's any mulch or soil mounded around the base of the rose, push it away gently with a gloved hand or a trowel. Then cut away any obviously dead wood, that is, wood that is thoroughly blackened and splintered.
   Making a tentative cut will also help you determine whether the wood is live or dead. Dead wood is brown and pithy, often with a hollow core. Live wood is green or white and firm. It often has red buds growing from it. A branch often will be dead at the end but live farther down. In this case, cut down at least to the live stuff.

Step Three
Shape the Rose
Your goal here is to achieve a pruned rose bush that has 3 to 6 or 7 short, thick (as fat as your pinky finger) branches, evenly spaced, curving outward from the center in a vase-like shape.
   If your finished product falls short of this, don't dispair. Many roses don't lend themselves to this ideal; just do the best you can. However, pruning branches in this manner encourages them to  grow strong and away from each other, avoiding rubbing branches or a congested center--both of which encourage disease.
   When making the final cut at the end of a branch, make sure that it is just above an outward facing bud, that is, the little red leaflet is positioned to grow away from the center of the rose. Make the cut at a 45-degree angle, sloping inward toward the center of the bush. This discourages fungus-causing moisture from staying on the cut end and also further encourages the new growth upward and outward, keeping a nice open center on the bush.

Step Four
Roses are hungry plants and grow and bloom best with frequent feedings. Those who show roses feed them with a liquid fertilizer every two weeks, but in Iowa, a monthly feeding just once a month March through August is ideal for best plant health. (Don't fertilize after that; it will just encourage new, tender growth that will get zapped by winter cold.) A feeding right after pruning will encourage a shot of new, vigorous growth.
   The easiest way to feed roses is to work in a slow-release granular fertilizer (either organic or not) at the base of the rose. Some fertilizers even have a systemic insecticide to keep aphids, thrips, and pests at bay.

Tips for Better Rose Pruning
   • Know if your rose blooms on old wood or new wood. Most lower, bushy roses will bloom only on new wood, that is, new branches grown that year. On the other hand, many climbing roses and some antique roses bloom only on old wood, that is, you need to leave a lot of the wood from last year for them to bloom on. If in doubt, cut back the rose anyway. If it doesn't bloom, next year give it only a light haircut to tidy it up a bit and see if it does indeed bloom on its old wood.
   • Use a bypass hand shears, rather than an anvil-type shears. They crush the stem, inviting in disease. And make sure the blade is sharp. Either take the shears to a scissors-sharpener or sharpen it yourself at home with a tool file, available at better equipped garden centers.
   • For larger rose bushes, also have a pair of long-handled loppers on hand. Shears usually can handle branches only up to 3/4 inch or so. Loppers can handle the fatter branches found at the base of the rose.
   • How far back you cut the rose will depend on how large you ultimately want the rose. Also, as a rule, cut roses that grow smaller shorter; cut taller roses taller. To keep a rose bush smaller, cut the canes to just 8 to 24 inches. Taller rose bushes can be cut as high as 3 feet. Climbing and other roses can be cut as high as 4 or even 5 feet.
   • No need to dab lipstick, wax, glue, or anything else on the cuts. The latest research shows rose cuts heal best when left alone.
   • In the fall, it's okay to cut back very tall roses so the canes don't whip in the wind. But as a rule, avoid pruning roses after they fully leaf out.
   • Tough, close-to-the-wild rugosa roses really don't need any pruning, other than getting rid of dead wood or canes that rub together badly.
   • For more information and illustrations on pruning roses, visit the American Rose Society web site on this topic at

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