Around this time of year, I bring my gardening class to the War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge in Dublin to learn how to prune the roses. It’s one of those invaluable skills in the arsenal of the gardener and once you learn how, it will stick with you until you’re pushing up the daisies. Armed with the right tools and knowledge, anyone can learn how to care for their roses ensuring they have a brilliant display of blooms come summertime.
What tools do you need?
Before we get started let’s do a bit of housekeeping – make sure your tools are up to scratch and talking of scratches (see what I did there!) invest in a good pair of leather gloves, trust me, I wouldn’t wear any other type when working with thorny shrubs. The tools you choose to use are vitally important. There are plenty of reliable brands of secateurs on the market but the one I and many other gardeners swear by is Felco. They provide a good range of hand tools suitable for all pruning jobs including secateurs with various sized blades, swivelling handles to reduce the risk of carpel tunnel syndrome from the repetitive nature of the task and for lefties like me, left-handed secateurs which is a dream in a world filled with right-handed tools. For mature rose bushes which need regenerative pruning and have thicker, older stems you need a loppers and a pruning saw. These are curved in design with sharp teeth suitable for cutting live plant material. Include these in your bag of tricks and you will be well on your way to training your roses for a successful growing season year after year.
Looking after your Tools
Caring for your tools is key to a life-long relationship, I have had my secateurs for almost 20 years, and they are still going strong. Sharpening your tools including your secateurs and loppers is not only necessary for ease of cutting but vital for ensuring you prevent the risk of injury to yourself. It’s important to know the capability of your tool, as in how thick a stem it can actually cut. In general, most secateurs can comfortably cut a stem which is pencil thickness, anything thicker than that and you could strain your hand or warp the blades by overexerting the tool. I like to carry a light-weight diamond sharpener which can readily fit in my pocket so I can sharpen on the go. Oiling your tools is also important and helps to prevent them seizing up. When pruning on a regular basis you may find debris getting caught up in the mechanics of the secateurs and the sap from certain shrubs can be a bit sticky so it’s good to clean them frequently to avoid the risk of spreading disease. Many of the nasties are fungal which are airborne so can easily adhere to your tools and pass to the next plant you work on. Once you have ticked all these boxes it’s time to wrap up and get out there pruning.
The Principles of Pruning
Pruning shrubs is an art and ask any trained gardener worth their salt what’s the most important thing to remember when pruning and they will all say the 3 D’s – prune Dead, Diseased and Dying wood before you start to sculpt the shrub. Of course, there are many different types of roses from Hybrid Teas and Floribunda to shrub roses and of course climbers and ramblers. Here I will give you advice on how to prune Hybrid Tea (HT) and Floribunda (FL) roses which are the types my class will prune at the War Memorial Gardens. HT have a superb array of varieties with their distinctive singular flowers with many boasting exquisite scent throughout the summer. Whereas FL first came into being through a cross between a Hybrid Tea and Polyantha roses resulting in those eye-catching clusters of flowers for prolonged periods in the summer.
With HT and FL roses both types grow to waist height so need to be pruned quite hard each winter which encourages them to put on lush new growth for the summer. The easiest way to remember the shape you are aiming for is a goblet shape with an open centre with no more than 5 main stems. You will probably find a mix of weak spindly growth which for the most part should be removed and older and crooked stems which should be nominated for removal over a couple of growing seasons. Ideally, you want to have equally spaced stems which will be cut back to approximately 30cm high. It sounds quite extreme but believe me they will flourish and thrive once given a proper prune.
As a newbie, take your time and don’t go hell for leather or else you could end up pruning too much off, so at the start observe the shrub, if possible walk around it to make sure when the job is done it will end up with an equal spread of flowers across the plant. Also, if it has neighbouring roses you will have to take the direction of their growth into consideration to avoid them growing into a tangled mess later in the season.
When cutting back the stems always prune above an outward-facing bud and make sure the cut slopes away behind the bud. This helps to encourage the growth outwards which in turn reduces congestion in the centre of the bush. It also enables rainwater to drain away from the cut and not settle directly on it reducing the risk of infection and with the buds destined to grow away from the centre it will aid air circulation and reduce the risk of disease taking hold. When pruning above the bud, it’s important not to cut too close as it could damage that little bundle of growth for next year.
It’s also important to consider when to prune. Try to get the job done when the plant is still dormant and leafless as it’s much easier to work with bare stems and avoid pruning after a hard frost as the stems won’t respond well if pruned when slightly frozen.
Other tips to take on board include removing all the material you have pruned away and if there is any leaf litter that has black spot, a common fungal disease, make sure to discard that material in the regular waste as it can lie dormant in compost heaps ready to infect healthy material in the future. It’s also important to remove the leaf litter as the spores can overwinter on the decaying foliage and splash up onto otherwise healthy plants if heavy rainfall occurs. It’s all about good plant husbandry at the end of the day. Unfortunately, as our climate is so humid roses can succumb to a number of airborne fungal diseases but the better stead we put them in by using clean tools, proper pruning techniques and feeding them to become healthy plants the better chance they will have of dealing with any potential pathogens.
Of course there is nothing better than getting stuck in and doing it yourself to ensure you learn that new skill so get out there and get pruning!
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Happy Gardening Folks!