UNITED STATES—Roses are not for the meek. They are too demanding, too sensitive, too thorny, and without their flowers, they are not even very attractive. They have no business in a low-maintenance landscape, or in a landscape maintained by mow, blow and go gardeners. Those who want to grow rose plants for their flowers should be ready to give them what they want, and to prune them aggressively.
The most aggressive pruning gets done during winter dormancy. That process alone can be quite intimidating for those who are just getting acquainted with roses. After seeing them grow through the year, it seems counterproductive to prune big plants back to only a few short canes. Yet, by now, those canes should have produced much taller new canes that are already blooming profusely.
Now it is time to prune roses again, or will be time to do so soon. Deteriorating flowers need to be pruned away to promote continued bloom, a process known as ‘deadheading.’ Otherwise, the fruiting structures that develop, known as ‘rose hips,’ divert resources and inhibit bloom. Of course, blooms taken as cut flowers leave no hips, but they might leave stubs that may need grooming.
The popular technique of pruning back to the fifth leaf below a hip is not necessarily what roses want. It probably originated from the recommendation of pruning back to a low leaf with five leaflets because the buds associated with upper leaves with three or less leaflets are not as likely to develop into productive stems. However, pruning a bit too low is probably better than pruning too high.
When cutting roses to bring in, it is better to cut long stems, and then shorten them later if necessary. Each stem should be cut just above a leaf so that the bud in the leaf axil can develop into a new stem without much of a stub above it. The cut stem left behind on the plant should not be so long that it extends too far above the canes that were pruned over winter, or becomes crowded.
Crowded stems inhibit growth of vigorous blooming canes, and are more susceptible to rust, mildew and blackspot.
Highlight: wild roses
Compared to extensively bred garden varieties, wild roses are not much to look at. Their tiny flowers do not get much wider than two inches, and may not get much wider than those of blackberry, with only about five petals. Flower color ranges only between pale luminescent white and pale pink. Bloom is typically rather brief in mid spring. Only a few healthy specimens bloom again later.
The main advantage to wild roses is that they are ‘wild.’ Once established, they do not need much more water than they get from annual rainfall. Without pruning, canes of larger varieties develop into intimidating thickets that bloom annually. Smaller types stay short, but are intimidatingly thorny nonetheless. The deciduous foliage is not bothered too much by mildew, blackspot or insects.
Some types of wild roses appreciate a bit of pampering that might be offensive to other wild plants and most natives. Winter pruning, occasional summer watering, and perhaps a bit of fertilizer improve bloom. Alternatively, pruning after spring bloom may stimulate a second phase of bloom. Long canes can grow roots where they touch the ground, and grow into new spreading plants.