Although I prune roses every year, and have for decades, I really don’t know what I’m doing. Yes, I know about outward facing buds, crossing branches, and twiggy growth, but when confronted with an actual rose, those directives feel very abstract. And somewhat useless. So before I make the first cut I think about two things. First, there was the year I didn’t get to the shrub roses at the Glasbern Inn soon enough to suit the owner. He took a chain saw and sheared them at a height of about 18 inches, and you guessed it—they bloomed beautifully that year. The second example came in an article I read a year or two ago, written by a British rose grower (who must have been an excellent gardener because he lived in England). In the article were photos of pruned and unpruned roses side by side. There was absolutely no difference between the two!
Armed with the knowledge that pruning roses is not a matter of life or death I put on my rose-colored glasses and make up my own rules. My rule with the vigorous ‘New Dawn’ rose wired to this historic brick wall is, if a lateral branch sticks out too far I cut it back. Horizontals I don’t touch unless they’re sprawling in the wrong direction. As for the dozens of shrub roses at the Glasbern, no one rule applies. Some are in locations that have become shaded over time, so I allow them to reach (through weeping hemlocks or up against stone walls) for the sun. To do otherwise would be cruel. I groom most of my shrub roses (‘Carefree Delight’, a couple of Easy Elegance roses, and a mix of Meidilands) fairly lightly, pruning off last year’s hips and cutting long canes back to two to three feet. I leave the cascading roses that drape down from a height of 15-20 feet toward the Glasbern parking lot below completely alone. For one thing, I would need a crane (and some really tough gloves) to prune them safely, and for another, I want them to eventually coat the entire bank with luxurious pink blooms. At that point I may rethink my non-strategy.
Without fail, all of the roses reward my fumbling attempts at grooming them with an exuberant show. This, by the way, was the perfect week to prune roses.