Monday, January 7, 2013

Extreme Pruning

Conventional wisdom holds that roses are pruned for rejuvenation. Since the youngest canes are the most vigorous, they are left to bloom, while the old canes, being the least productive, are removed to make room for more new growth. At least, this is what I usually do :)

I leave as many healthy canes on my bushes as possible and don't cut back hard, especially since some of my oldest roses (like Double Delight) have severe cane dieback at the sight of pruning cuts. Young canes have the most color on the bark. Old canes have grey woody bark.

Most people who grow roses have their own ideas on how to prune: some only remove dead and diseased growth and leave the rest alone, some cut all canes back to a uniform height, some strip the leaves off, etc. There are no hard rules that would work for every rose, and for me, the pruning choices are made easier by observing how each rose responds to the amount of pruning I give it.

Notice black colored dead growth, mostly on the left side. On many roses, unproductive twiggy growth dies and should be removed to make room for new canes (not my rose :))

However, it is not often that I see roses pruned as mercilessly as the ones I saw driving past this house today. The front yard has lots of irises, agapanthus, daylilies, camellias, a row of taller tree roses (standards) and some shrub roses in front which you probably can't even see.

The reason you can't see the shrub roses is that they were all cut back to short stubs, and all new canes were removed completely.

The most extreme case of pruning I have seen in a while. I don't think this is the best way to prune a rose

It seems that roses in this yard are pruned to the oldest growth.

This pruning technique looks very much like pollarding, but roses do not seem to respond to it in the same way that trees do.

Pollarded mulberry trees

I think I could guess why the roses are pruned this way. These old canes may be becoming more and more worn out, so the growth they produce is thinner and more sparse every year, so more and more of it is removed. Seems a vicious circle.

I personally tend to go to the other extreme and probably don't prune my roses hard enough :). Some of them still have a few blooms: I found I miss rose blooms too much if I have to go a whole winter without them, so I don't cut them off until they are done blooming.

I wish spring were here already...


  1. Oh my.. I prune hard about every three years, but never THAT hard ! For me it is strictly a size control issue. I will be stripping off lots of foliage this year, and in fact my 2 Our Lady of Guadalupes' are covered with both foliage and leaves. We are predicted a few nights in the twenties late this week so maybe some of those leaves will fall, though it seems they have hardened off.

  2. Hi!
    This is a very interesting post. Thank you for all that info and the pictures accompanying it.

  3. I am a 'timid' rose pruner. :-)

    Happy Gardening ~ FlowerLady

  4. Hi Masha,We are pretty severe with our pruning method but not quite as hard as the examples you show. I am optimistically searching every day for signs of Spring, that last picture looks very much like Pulmonaria Blue Ensign.

  5. I wish I could see you pruning ... Great header !

  6. Hi Masha, I completely agree with you that it is good to have some rules down how to prune roses, but what works best in the end is to observe how the rose is responding to the pruning and take your own conclusions from that. For example I can prune some of my David Austin roses pretty strong and they produce growth from the shortened canes and bloomed on that. Other English Roses didn't like that treatment at all and they had severe dieback on the canes that I pruned and in case there was coming new growth from the shortened canes it grew up to the same height like the old canes were and only bloomed on the tip of the cane. I had much better results to prune these rose only very lightly and almost leave them alone. With the David Austin roses I never know until I try it out.
    The extremely pruned roses you show in this post look like they have been tortured! Should be forbidden ;-)! I think in the long run they will kill the roses that way.

  7. I was shocked to see the roses pruned this way! I can't even imagine what they will look like in the spring. I prune each of my roses differently, so it's hard to do a post on pruning basics. This, however, is a great post on how NOT to prune a rose!

  8. Sad. The results speak for themselves.

    I've been thinking about pruning since I've started mine. A cut stimulates growth on the remaining topmost dormant buds, so at least a tip prune seems in order to stimulate new growth of some sort. Cutting at the same place every year and you gradually use up all the dormant buds at the top--or so it seems.

    Observation (and recording of) what I did in the past and how it produced (or didn't produce) strong new growth has been the most helpful strategy.

  9. You are the expert, and the evidence is documented on your beautiful blog! That does seem extremely severe--one couldn't go much farther than that and manage to have the Roses survive! I'm always a little apprehensive about pruning, but the Roses I have seem to respond well to moderate pruning. I prune the especially buggy ones back by half after they bloom. Sometimes they reward me with a second round of blooms in the late summer or fall. I need more Roses!! :)

  10. Thank you for your thoughts, I enjoyed reading them.

    ks, for me size is the main issue too. Wind damage to the canes (Austins come to mind) is a close second.

    Christina, You are right, Austins are so different it may be hard to know what to do with them. I am glad you figured out a way that works for you.

    Hoover, I think HTs and HPs definitely benefit from pruning. Other types, it might not be necessary. My teas, left unpruned, continue growing right at the abscission point. Root mass rather than lack of pruning seems to be the limiting factor with them. My climbing Cecile Brunner could seemingly grow on forever and ever and eat my house and the neighbors' yards...

    Thank you, Ioana, FlowerLady, Alistair, Dani, Holley and Beth.

  11. The people who pruned their roses so far back, will never get new shoots, it is really too short. But I have to admit I am a bad pruner. I look at my roses, take the dead branches away and prune the Polyanthas and tearoses back to 3 buds. The Austin roses don't like hard pruning, so I take one third off. Climbing roses is different, the side shoots I cut back very short. The shrubs roses almost don't need pruning, I just take dead and old branches away.

  12. I pruned one of my roses fairly hard this year after moving it to a new spot. I cut it back to about 12" and it's already putting out new growth, thanks to a too-warm winter. Hopefully, it will grow well this summer. I end up pruning away growth on some of my climbers because they're growing forward and don't have form of support. I think some people think that the more they cut a shrub or rose, the better they'll grow. But if they're going to prune badly, they might as well not even prune at all.

  13. Hi Masha
    I just know that after pruning I always got the feeling to have done it wrong :o). I can stand for half an hour infront of a rose to decide wheter to cut this twig or not :o). But I do not prune it as hard as you showed in the photos... gosh, I wouldn't have the courage *smile*.
    Have a lovely day

  14. Masha, every spring when I open my rose covering I look on their branches and only remove dead and diseased. Your photos are useful, was interesting to see how some people terribly prune their roses.

  15. Janneke, taking a different approach to different types of roses makes you a good, not a bad pruner. You are doing great.

    Casa Mariposa, I also prune my espaliered climbers like that to save space (actually trees too). I hope your transplanted roses will bloom well in summer and am looking forward to your photos.

    Alex, I have this feeling every winter, particularly when I discover that what looked on the bottom to be an old unproductive cane has some thick young laterals on top that I just pruned off... By spring I usually forget about it :)

    Nadezhda, thank you for letting me know. I wondered if roses growing in a climate like yours with harsh winters have to be pruned very hard. It was interesting to see that even for you this type of pruning is extreme.

  16. I hate to say it, but those hard-pruning photos are representative of commonplace pruning techniques here in Spain. Here, you see examples of this "technique" all over the place. It reminds me of extreme pollarding, which they are also very fond of here, especially in public gardens.

  17. I dont think i am as severe as maybe i ought to with our bushes. they really do need a more dramatic haircut.

  18. I always enjoy your posts about pruning, as I find pruning to be intimidating. :)

  19. Mercy, that is some hard pruning. I am prone to prune hybrid teas to 18-24" but then again I observe the growth habit of each rose and prune accordingly for bloom power and proportion to the space its planted in. Thanks for this post.

  20. I've been known to extreme prune some roses, but it was a terrible thing to do to almost any rugosa! Just old dead wood please! I've gone against my own best advice and pruned my 'William Baffin' hard this Winter. It was catching guests as they entered the garden gate and front walk! I wonder if "Bill" will reward me or punish me!!


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