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Spring arrives early for roses, pruned or not

Lady Hamilton, a David Austin rose, still had blooms and foliage
before pruning Jan. 23. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)
Maintenance now means healthier plants later

Buds are breaking out all over.

Due to springlike temperatures and moist soil, roses are thinking they’ve overslept – if they went dormant at all. Bushes are already pushing out new growth. Some are still in bloom, flowering off last year’s canes.

What’s a procrastinating gardener to do? Stop stalling and prune.

Snip off those winter flowers; bring them inside for a bouquet or try to root the cuttings. Strip off any remaining leaves (even if they look healthy). Trim out any dead or diseased wood as well as crossing branches. This necessary winter maintenance will make your roses much happier and healthier in the months to come.

This winter in Sacramento, the lack of really cold nights allowed many roses to hold onto their leaves. Instead of resting, these bushes went right into next year’s growth cycle, sprouting new stems at the end of last year’s canes. The result is a mass of crisscrossing canes that clog air circulation in the middle of the bush.

Good air circulation is key to healthy roses without chemical spraying. It allows air to flow around leaves, drying off excess moisture and keeping fungal diseases away.

Why remove old foliage? Although remaining leaves may look healthy, they often harbor fungal spores for powdery mildew, rust, blackspot and other diseases. When temperatures reach the mid-70s, those fungal diseases flare up rapidly and infect new foliage.

This is what bud break looks like.
Besides improving the bush’s health, pruning brings flowers down to a height where they can be most enjoyed.  If not pruned, rose bushes tend to add as much new growth on top of the old growth as they did the year before. Spring blooms will be 7 or 8 feet off the ground, too tall to stop and smell.

Sacramento’s rose pruning season traditionally wraps up in February, before March weather prompts rapid growth. But with coming days forecast in the 70s, roses already feel it’s time for spring break – bud break, that is. And it’s still January.

Bud eyes are the growth points along rose canes. They’re found just above where a leaf was attached (or may still be hanging on). “Bud break” refers to the rapid development of that bud; it sprouts leaves and stem, eventually developing a flower at the end of that stem.

Pruning is much easier before those buds break and grow into a lot of new stems.

Pruning also is easier if a bush goes dormant, dropping its leaves and resting. Without foliage, the bud eyes are easier to spot.

How do you prune a bush still covered with leaves? Start by taking it down to height, but not too short. For hybrid teas in a garden setting, that’s about 3 feet.  (Yes, that seems tall, but the taller bush will reach its blooming height sooner.)

Then, take out the dead or diseased canes as well as crossing canes. After that, prune as much or as little as desired.

Here's the same Lady Hamilton rose after pruning.
The last step: Remove remaining leaves. With leather gloves, strip the leaves off, lightly running your glove down the stem starting from the tip. Or snip the leaflets off with pruning shears.

It may seem like a lot of extra work, but the results will be beautiful. Expect the first blooms in six to eight weeks.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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