Pruning roses can be an incredibly creative process – the shapes and forms that are realised through basket-like weaving and flowing lines of bright green, thorny stems can be an absolute delight in a garden. I must caveat this by pointing out that there is often no pleasure without a little pain when it comes to roses. There’ll be more than one occasion when a thorn will break your skin, and it is only when you come to wash your hands or have a shower that the true extent of your injuries is revealed. Forgive me for being playfully dramatic about this, but it seems that a little sacrifice is required for our art.
There is a great deal of mystique and contradiction about rose pruning, but it is a lot simpler than you may think and can be carried out at a reasonably quiet time of year. The main reasons for taking the secateurs to our roses is to maintain a healthy and vigorous plant, remove any dead or diseased stems and encourage a strong flowering performance.
When pruning roses, aim for a slightly sloping cut above a strong bud, with the base of the cut opposite the bud on the stem. This is to allow water to run away from the emerging bud and minimise tissue damage adjacent to the eventual sprout. When it comes to climbers and rambling roses, I treat them the same and prune during the winter when the leaves have mostly dropped off because it is easy to see the growth and make those judgments about what to remove and what to tie in.
Rambling roses tend to flower early in the summer and in one brilliant flush, delivering a show-stopping display, whereas climbers can repeat-flower throughout the summer in a less dramatic fashion. Ramblers tend to be more vigorous and need some research before planting as they can overwhelm fences and structures.
For the first few years, simply tie in growth and keep the rose fed and watered. Avoid any dramatic pruning at this early stage as you’re establishing a framework. Tying in the stems in a more horizontal position will reduce vigour and encourage more flowers. When the rose is a few years old, reduce any side shoots to a couple of buds from where they branch off from the long stems. Avoid removing more than 20 per cent of the rose each year as this will lead to an eruption of stems and fewer flowers. Remember to remove any deadwood as you go.
Ultimately, I try to achieve a fountain shape with a clear centre and remove a few older stems at the base to encourage replacement shoots. By removing and replacing a couple of stems each year, we constantly rejuvenate our rose to achieve that healthy and productive climber.
Roses are hungry and thirsty plants. After pruning, fork over any compacted ground, apply a couple of handfuls of rose fertiliser and mulch with well-rotted manure or garden compost. It’s best to avoid the compost coming into contact with the stems as this will lead to rotting, which will compromise your plant. For lacklustre roses, apply rose fertiliser around the base every six weeks from March until September for a more buoyant response.