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When and how should I prune my roses?

March is a good month to be pruning roses. The tools required are pruning shears and long-handled lopping shears. Pruners should be sharp to produce clean cuts and to avoid tearing or crushing the stems. When selecting shears, look for bypass pruners (hook and blade type), which have two cutting edges like a pair of scissors. The anvil type pruners, with one cutting edge, will crush the stem. Long-handled lopping shears are best used on thick canes or those difficult to reach with pruning shears. You might also want to invest in a pair of heavy duty gloves to protect your hands from thorns on the bushes.

In general, roses should be pruned just before growth begins in March or early April. The exceptions are heirloom roses and some climbers that produce blooms on the previous year's wood. They should be pruned after they bloom.

Following a logical sequence of steps while pruning will make the job less complicated. The first step is to remove any dead, diseased, or damaged wood. Cut the stems one inch below darkened areas, making sure you are cutting back to green wood. Make the cut at a 45 degree angle about one-quarter inch above an outward facing bud. Inspect the pith (center of the stem). It should be white. If tan colored, continue pruning sections of the stem until the pith appears white.

The second step is to remove branches that grow inward, toward the center of the plant. This "opens" the plant for better air circulation and allows sunlight to penetrate the inner portion of the plant.

The third step is to locate crossing branches and remove the weakest one. Crossing branches may rub against each other, causing abrasions that may serve as openings for disease organisms. Remove sucker growth, which is growth coming from below the bud union. Sucker growth is from the root stock and is a different rose variety; if not removed, sucker growth will crowd out the desired variety.

Finally, prune to shape the plant. Hybrid teas, grandifloras, and floribundas can be pruned 12 to 24 inches in height, leaving up to 9 to 12 large (one-half inch diameter), healthy canes. Old, shrub, and species roses should be pruned sparingly, removing no more than a third of the growth. Miniature roses need only minimal pruning.

Climbing roses can be cleaned up in early spring as well. While the plant is still dormant, shorten flowered laterals to four or five buds. If pruning an established climber, prune the flowered laterals in the spring, the same way you would a new plant. Remember to remove any dead or diseased wood or stems arising from below the bud union. For climbers that are several years old, some of the oldest wood can be removed at the base to encourage new growth.

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