When I was teaching at the university, one of the pleasures of spring break for me (besides my birthday) was pruning my roses. Now that I’m retired from teaching there, I still prune my roses about a week after the spring equinox when the stems start to show signs of new growth. As soon as the days start to warm, I watch the roses for swelling where the nodes emerge from the green stems. That way, I can tell which part of the rose has been winter-killed and which is still alive. Waiting a couple weeks more, until the leaves have started to emerge, is recommended along the Front Range, but we get busy with farming in April so late March works best for me.
The last couple days, I’ve been pruning my roses. I used to have more roses but the last few years have been very hard on them. I lost some to drought, some to winter cold, and even a few to voles that love to burrow in the thick wood chip mulch around the rose bushes and sometimes girdle the rose completely through. I think all but one of my roses survived this winter, leaving me with three dozen or so, which I can prune in about three hours. I look forward all winter to my pruning time in those first sunny days in the flower garden taking stock of what’s survived and what needs attention.
I plant exclusively “own root” roses, which means that the plant has been reproduced from a cutting of its own stock rather than grafted onto the root of another, generally more vigorous, rose stock. Grafted roses offer many more variety choices than own root roses but, if the grafted part dies, the shoots that emerge from the roots will revert to the parent stock, which is usually a ubiquitous shrub type of rose which lacks distinction in bloom. On the other hand, own root roses are slower to grow and bloom than grafted roses but, in our harsh climate along Colorado’s Front Range, I find that own root roses are more likely to survive.
During the busy farming season, I don’t have time to baby my roses, so I grow varieties that are relatively hardy. My favorite roses—and the ones that have done the best in my rose bed—are the David Austin varieties. David Austin is an English rose breeder who combines characteristics of old roses—particularly fragrance and shape—with repeat blooming varieties, resulting in gorgeous, abundant, fragrant roses with outstanding vigor, color, and scent.
My own root varieties of David Austin roses (not all DA roses are own root), have taken a while to get established, but it was worth the wait. My favorite rose is Abraham Darby for its cup-shaped, apricot-pink, multi-petaled flower. If you only grow one rose, it should be an Abraham Darby.
Another of my favorites is Graham Thomas with its rich yellow blooms. I often avoid yellow roses because, in our dry climate, they tend to turn brown, but Graham Thomas holds its color well.
Both of these roses are classified as “shrubs,” growing about four feet tall in our climate, so I position them next to short trellises to give some extra support—and I Iike the way their heavy-headed blooms drape across the trellis.
Other favorites are Lillian Austin, Gertrude Jekyll, Teasing Georgia, Mary Rose, and Othello—but be careful of the warrior thorns on that one because it lives up to its Shakespearean name. I’ve got a space selected this spring for another rose, and I’m anxious to see what our local nursery carries for new David Austin own root varieties.
Some people like to cut their roses all the way down to the ground in the fall or early spring to let new stems emerge from the root graft. But because roses are harder to grow here, I like to wait until I can see what’s dead and alive and then prune only what’s needed.
When I’m pruning, I think about the architecture of the plant. I generally leave only the strongest three or four stems, depending on what’s there, so that the bottom of the bush has a triangular or square shape. Next, I decide where to trim the remaining three or four stems to 10 or 12 inches high by looking at where the nodes emerge and choosing a top node that points in the direction I want the new, emerging branch to go. I always want that new branch to grow away from the center of the plant, meaning it should be found facing the outside of the bush rather than the inside.
Once I choose the node, I remove everything about a quarter-inch above it by pruning at a 45-degree angle up and away from the node. Last, I trim any branches from those main stems by again deciding where I want the new growth to go. As I trim, I try to imagine the architectural shape I want to create and prune accordingly.
I hope that this spring’s moisture will mean a less severe summer and more abundant roses. Last season, my roses looked miserable and bloomed sparsely. This year, I’m going to feed them more consistently (using Epsom salts dissolved in buckets of water) and make sure they’re heavily mulched. Already, I’ve done a better job pruning than I did last season and that should help.
The most important thing to remember in pruning roses is to wear heavy gloves and long sleeves to protect yourself from thorns. If you’re pruning roses, you will get scratched. That’s part of rose growing–and it’s worth it.