When I was a petulant high school student in New York City, my sweet Aunt Cecile lived in the country Upstate and grew the most spectacular English roses. My sisters and I would sigh loudly and roll our eyes as she’d go on and on about her ‘Wife of Bath’ and ‘Heritage’ roses. Of course, the payback for judging people is that someday you become just like them. Or worse: Turns out I’ve developed a rose addiction far more obsessive and way less reasonable than my Aunt Cecile’s. And I’m supremely confident I can bore the pants off anyone willing to listen to me go on about my dearly loved David Austin® rosebushes.

Guy De Maupassant Rose

Roses may be a wee fussy, but one look at this ‘Guy de Maupassant’ flower makes it worth any extra work!

Rose needing pruning

This ‘Peace’ rosebush needs some pruning.

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

Moderately pruned rose

I like to prune my rosebushes back moderately.

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

Budding rose stem

The swollen reddish bud on this stem will grow into new foliage and flowers for me to enjoy in my garden.

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

Bare root rose

This bare-root rose may not be much to look at now, but once it takes off in my garden, it’ll be bloomin’ fantastic!

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

So if you know how much I adore roses, you’re probably not surprised that I’m thinking about roses in the dead of winter. In fact, depending where you live, January through March is a great time to plant bare-root roses, and there are so many inviting choices just waiting for you at the nurseries! Once you pick out your lovely favorites, make sure to plant them in the right spot. Roses demand lots of sun and fresh air, so you need to choose a site with at least six hours of direct sun and some discernible air movement. Roses have a reputation of being “high maintenance” – but only if they’re not treated right from the start. A shady or cramped location only invites insects and diseases.

Another prerequisite is good drainage. Adding organic materials like compost or aged chicken or turkey manure to clay soil is a must. When planting a new bare-root rose, award-winning rosarian Rayford Reddell suggests digging a hole 2 feet wide by 2 feet deep and building a cone of composted soil in the center to spread the roots over. In mild winter climates, make sure the bud union (the heart of the rose), sits 2 inches above soil level. (My rose comrades in chilly Vermont plant their roses with the bud union 2-3 inches below the soil level.) Fill the hole with water and soil, and place a mound of mulch around the newly planted bush.

It’s important to know that roses expend enormous amounts of energy growing and flowering – and this can exhaust soil nutrients quickly. Organic fertilizers work wonders and can be used safely throughout the year. I usually wait until March to start feeding my rosebushes with shots of fish emulsion and Epsom salt, and I continue periodic feedings till October.

Here on the West Coast, I usually prune my 50 rosebushes on New Year’s morning. (Being out in the fresh air works wonders for a cheap-champagne-induced hangover.) For those of you in colder climates, wait until late March, or whenever you see some “budding eyes” on the canes showing signs of growth. If you’re new to growing roses and aren’t sure when to prune, check with your local garden nursery or Cooperative Extension office.

Why do you have to prune your roses? Well, you don’t have to, but it certainly helps speed up nature’s growth cycle, which allows you to enjoy your roses even more! Pruning also promotes good air circulation and enables the plant to concentrate its energy on the remaining healthy shoots. If time permits, two weeks before you prune, remove all the leaves from your rosebushes gently. Cutting them off works better than stripping and pulling. Not only does this action signal the plant to rejuvenate its foliar process, you’ll also be able to see the “swollen red eye” (where a flower would form) more clearly. This is where you’ll make your cut.

When it comes to pruning roses, the basic rules of thumb are:

  1. Remove any dead wood or old canes.
  2. Cut out any weak, spindly or deformed growth.
  3. Remove any canes growing toward the center of the bush. (Try to form an urn shape.)
  4. Remove any suckers. (These are undesirable skinny shoots that grow up near the bud union –they’re usually a slightly different foliage color.)
  5. Shorten the remaining canes by cutting them back by 1/3-½ their original length, making sure to cut on a diagonal a ¼ inch above an outward-facing budding eye.

Severe pruning will produce fewer but showier blossoms. I like to prune moderately, which means that each rosebush is left with 5-10 canes that are about 24 inches high with airy space in the center of the bush.

If the idea of pruning your roses is now making you nervous, I’ll let you in on a little rosarian secret that should set you free: Recent pruning trials conducted by the Royal National Rose Society consistently showed that rough pruning with a hedge trimmer produced results just as good, or better, than traditional pruning methods. So don’t worry so much about cutting too wildly – your roses will still thrive!

So now’s the time! Head to your local nursery and buy yourself a bevy of bare-root roses! Don’t worry about their fussiness – just get them in the ground correctly so they’re off to a good start. With proper care, you might even develop a rose obsession to rival my Aunt Cecile’s – or worse, mine!