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Can I prune my roses now?

Tips for winter rose care start with sharp shears

Rose being pruned
Sharp pruning shears and thick gloves are
crucial to successful (and safe) rose pruning.
(Photo: Debbie Arrington)

It’s pruning time! Now is when rose lovers get busy. Our bushes need some TLC if we want healthy growth and abundant flowers next spring – and for months to follow.

The best time to prune in Sacramento usually is between Dec. 15 and Valentine’s Day. Colder weather coaxes roses into dormancy during that period. Their spent blooms will develop into rose hips, the rose’s fruit. They’ll finally drop their leaves – and any remains of fungal infections.

Pruning fosters a healthier environment for roses. It revitalizes the bush and resets its biological clock. It improves air flow (which combats fungal disease) and eliminates dead wood (which could be harboring pests). It allows the rose to be the best it can be.

Before you prune, take time to get your tools in order. Use “bypass” pruners or loppers; as you prune, one blade passes by the other to create a cleaner cut and not bruise the stem or branch. (The alternative is anvil pruners, which pinch the stems.)

Sharpen your pruners and long-handled loppers before you start cutting. Sharp tools make clean cuts that heal quickly.

Here's an excellent video on sharpening hand pruners, filmed by the UCCE Master Gardeners of Sacramento County:

Wear thick gloves -- preferably leather. Protect your hands and arms. Rose prickles may contain dangerous bacteria that can cause serious illness, even death. Don't get pricked.

Another must-have tool: Disinfectant. This can be Lysol spray (or similar) or wipes. Between each bush, spray or wipe your pruner and lopper blades. That quick dose of disinfectant can save lots of future grief; while pruning, it eliminates the inadvertent spread of disease from one rose to another.

Prune taller. Instead of taking a bush to the ground (or nearly so), prune hybrid tea bushes to about waist high – 3 feet tall. You’ll have blooms sooner next spring because the bush doesn’t have to take weeks to regrow to its basic size.

But do prune. If not pruned, the bush’s new growth will be on top of its old growth and tangled into a prickly mess. The bush can reach easily reach 8 to 10 feet tall – and probably become too big for its space.

When pruning, remove ALL the remaining foliage on each bush. Those old leaves often carry fungal spores that will infect spring growth shortly after it appears.

After pruning, rake up all the fallen leaves and other debris under the bush and remove it. Don’t compost it; it likely contains lots of fungal spores that you don’t want to recycle into your garden.

Once they’re pruned, surround your roses with fresh mulch, 1 to 2 inches deep. Aged compost works well. So do small wood chips or dried tree leaves. Avoid mounding mulch over the graft where the bush’s budwood is attached to its rootstock. Otherwise, the rootstock is likely to sprout. That mulch also protects the bush’s tender roots from any frost danger.

Put off fertilizing until late February. Right now, you want your roses to rest up for the bloom-filled year ahead.


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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Feb. 5

Make the most of sunny days and get winter tasks done:

* This is the last chance to spray fruit trees before they bloom. Treat peach and nectarine trees with copper-based fungicide. Spray apricot trees at bud swell to prevent brown rot. Apply horticultural oil to control scale, mites and aphids on fruit trees soon after a rain. But remember: Oils need at least 24 hours to dry to be effective. Don’t spray during foggy weather or when rain is forecast.

* Feed spring-blooming shrubs and fall-planted perennials with slow-release fertilizer. Feed mature trees and shrubs after spring growth starts.

* Finish pruning roses and deciduous trees.

* Remove aphids from blooming bulbs with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap.

* Fertilize strawberries and asparagus.

* Transplant or direct-seed several flowers, including snapdragon, candytuft, lilies, astilbe, larkspur, Shasta and painted daisies, stocks, bleeding heart and coral bells.

* In the vegetable garden, plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers, and strawberry and rhubarb roots.

* Transplant cabbage and its close cousins – broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts – as well as lettuce (both loose leaf and head).

* Plant artichokes, asparagus and horseradish from root divisions.

* Plant potatoes from tubers and onions from sets (small bulbs). The onions will sprout quickly and can be used as green onions in March.

* From seed, plant beets, chard, lettuce, mustard, peas, radishes and turnips.

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