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Diggin' It

Spring cleaning in the rose garden

Tried and true tactics for 'spring cleaning' your rose garden – from pruning techniques to thoughts on fertilizers.

By Lynn Hunt / March 11, 2010

Give your rose garden a bit of elbow grease in spring to make it blossom and shine this summer.

Courtesy of Lynn Hunt


Staring at enticing photos of roses in magazines, books, and catalogs during winter makes it easy to conjure up images of warm days, fragrant blooms, and lush green foliage. But one look outside quickly snaps you back to reality: The garden’s a mess.

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Dead leaves -- some reflecting the effects from a final battle with blackspot and mildew -- are everywhere. Untidy bushes desperately need a haircut. And many plants are showing signs of damage from this year’s severe weather.

So what kind of miracle will it take to bring this garden back to picture-perfect status? The answer is a little TLC and a lot of elbow grease.

In most areas of the country, a good rule of thumb is to start your garden clean-up when the forsythia blooms. Start by pulling off any diseased leaves that have wintered over on your rose bushes. Dispose of them right away – don’t throw them on the ground or you’ll be inviting even more disease problems.

Then get out your newly sharpened pruning shears and remove dead wood right down to the bud union. To help improve air circulation, remove any canes that crisscross, canes that grow into the center of the bush and any weak, spindly growth.

Diseased or winter-damaged canes should be pruned to the point where you find light green or white pith. Make your cuts at a 45-degree angle about 1/4 inch above a leaf bud that faces toward the outside of the plant.

How severely you prune depends on the type of rose. Unless you plan to exhibit, most experts recommend moderate pruning of 18 to 24 inches for hybrid teas, floribundas, and grandifloras.

Hybrid perpetual roses, shrub roses, and old garden roses generally only require thinning and shaping, so limit yourself to removing only old canes, dead wood, and spindly growth.

David Austin English roses in particular do not like severe haircuts.

Pruning climbing roses can be a bit trickier. Climbers that have only one flowering period should be pruned after they bloom. Take out old, weak, or entangled branches.

Repeat-blooming climbers need to be pruned while dormant in the spring. Again, remove any old or unproductive canes, then cut back side shoots to pencil thickness.

Miniature roses and minifloras are your easiest task. A recent study showed meticulous pruning didn’t really affect the plant’s success at all. So whether you use secateurs or a chain saw, cut back minis to about half of last summer’s height.

After pruning, paint any cuts wider than a straw with a sealing compound (Elmer’s glue will do fine) to discourage insects and disease.

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