Master Rosarian, Portland Rose Society
This article is a 2015 Award of Merit winner
I believe that roses are really an easy plant to cultivate and enjoy despite their bad wrap as being too much trouble. I was having a discussion about growing roses with John Clements a number of years ago and he made the statement to me that it was easy for me because I knew how to do it. And he was right. I have been involved with roses for most of my life, 60 years that I remember, some that I do not, and I have learned a lot about roses. First, that they are beautiful and give us more rewards than any other garden plant that I have ever grown. And second, they are not nearly as complicated as many who write about them want you to believe they are. My garden did get sprayed three times this year and I have fertilized twice and the roses get watered every two weeks, but for the six months that they have been producing beauty, I would say they were very much worth the little effort I have given to them. Many people still feel that the pruning aspects of roses are a mystery to them and something they should fear due the fact that they worry about the outcome if they do something wrong. Thus the following information is being provided.
Over the years the most asked question about removing the dead blooms is, “Where should I cut the stem when I remove the spent bloom?” The pat answer that every rosarian is taught to give is “Just above the first five leaflet leaf below the bloom.” This is a nice answer and that is what people want, a nice short rule that they can follow and expect to achieve acceptable results. However, this is really just a part of the complete answer. The problem in giving the complete answer is that it may result in the questioner having to think before he or she acts. I am going to attempt to give a much more complete answer than “the first five leaflet leaf” so that you have some food for thought.
Before we begin the discussion of what to do, maybe we should start with an even more basic question. Do we need to dead head our roses? When I teach spring pruning, the first question I always ask is “Do roses need to be pruned in the spring?” The answer often seems to be startling, because the answer is “NO”. The rose can grow through the season without being pruned. Will they look nice and fit into the landscape the way we want? The answer to this question again is “NO”. We prune roses to keep them looking the way we want them to look. We prune roses for us, not for them. The same thing is absolutely true for summer pruning. The rose will continue to do what roses do if we do not touch them with our pruners, but will they continue to do what we want them to do is another question. One of two things can happen to a stem after the bloom withers. One of these is that the flower may have been pollinated and the hip below the flower will begin to grow and produce seeds. If you let hips grow, they produce hormones that will inhibit the plant from reblooming. If our goal is producing hips, then we will want to do nothing, which is often the case with many of the roses that are nonremontant (once blooming). If reblooming is the goal we wish our rose to achieve, then it will be necessary to remove the spent bloom and developing hips. The rose is thus free of the hormone signals from the developing hips and it begins to send out new flowering shoots. There are some roses that will produce hips and continue to flower. (There are always exceptions to every rule.)
The other thing that can happen is that the flower was not pollinated and no seeds are going to be produced. In this case the flower and its reproductive parts will wither and dry up. Usually the tip of the flowering stem, the peduncle, will dry up enough that eventually it will just fall off when touched, separating itself from the plant at its base. The peduncle is the small last section of stem just below the bloom. Even before the dead bloom falls off, new shoots are usually being produced that will produce new flowers. So what can we learn from this information?
The first thing that we must do is consider the anatomy of a rose stem. If you cut an entire stem from a bush and look at it closely, you will notice that it has leaves emerging all along the length of the stem. The stem may be anywhere from 8 inches in length to over three feet, depending on the variety of the rose, growing conditions, etc. You will also notice that the stem usually gently tapers, having the greatest diameter near its base and the smallest diameter just below the flower. It is this gentle tapering which leads us to making the decision as to where the stem should be cut to remove the dead flower.
First, let’s look at an example of a rose that has bloomed and has not been deadheaded. (Fig. 1) In our garden this is not a rare sight and I can live with a garden that is not quite as perfect as some would like theirs to be. You will notice that the flower is dried up and the peduncle, (stem just below the flower), is also drying up. Emerging from the leaves just below the peduncle is a new flowering stem. In this case the stem would probably mature and flower when it is about 5-6 inches long. The flower will be relatively small and the stem length would not make this a very good cutting rose. You will also notice that an additional stem is emerging from the next leaf axil down the stem, (where the leaf joins the stem), as well. So let’s look at some examples from the garden that will make you think a little. The picture on the left (Fig. 2) is about two feet of a stem from the rose “Home & Family”. The unique thing about this particular stem is that as you look down the stem all of the leaves have three leaflets, there are no fives to cut above. So, if you wanted to do the traditional pruning, (above the first five leaflet leaf), you would have nowhere to cut. As it is, the picture above shows the pruning cut I made down about one foot below the flower. At this point the stem was of sufficient diameter to be strong enough to support the new flowers which will grow from just below the pruning point. Another example of what we might find in the garden is in the next image. (Fig. 4) This is a stem of the Hybrid Tea 'Helen Naudé'. There are a number of leaves growing quite close to the flower with the first one being a three leaflet leaf and all of the rest of them five leaflet leaves. If we followed the rule of cutting down to the first five leaflet leaf the cut would be made about 2 inches below the flower. The stem at this point is not nearly large enough to support the next bloom of a large flowered rose like 'Helen Naudé'. You will also notice that new stems have already begun to emerge from the axils of three leaves lower down on the stem and by count they were coming from the 5th 6th and 7th five leaflet leaves. I selected to cut this stem between the fifth and sixth five leaflet leaf (Fig. 5), at which point the stem was large enough in diameter to support the new stems which were already developing. I could have decided to cut the stem even lower than I did, which would have probably resulted in new stems that would be even larger than the ones that did develop. You, as the gardener, always get to have some input into how your garden will develop.
Grandifloras and floribundas can present a special challenge to the “dead header” because they tend to bloom in what we call sprays, (many blooms on one major stem), and these blooms often emerge at various times and thus wither at different times (Fig. 6). The excessively neat gardener may go through the garden every day removing spent blooms, which means that he or she will be removing some of the blooms from a spray on several different days (Fig 7). Eventually all of the flowers on the spray will be spent and will have been removed (Fig 8). I have seen these dead headed sprays left in this condition
frequently, especially in places like public gardens. Every person working to remove spent blooms does their job very well, but the person removing the last bloom needs
to finish the job. If the stem that supported a spray of flowers is left with the many little stems that supported each of the flowers, the plant will produce new growth
from those little stems. Eventually the plant will be producing many small flowers on very short stems and the beauty that that particular variety could produce will
be lost. When the last flower is faded on a spray, the entire spray structure needs to be treated as if it were one long flowering stem (Fig. 9). The entire head should
be removed to a point below its origination point and down the stem far enough so that the remaining stem will be able to support the new spray of flowers that will originate just below the pruning cut.
When doing your routine dead heading, there is another condition you may find on a somewhat regular basis. You may find a dead bloom that needs removed and you look down the stem for a good place to cut, but as you look down the stem it never increases in diameter (Fig 10). Even as far down as the third or fourth five leaflet leaf the stem may still be of insufficient diameter to support a healthy new bloom. The stem may be of any
length, maybe even over two feet long. The length of the stem does not really
matter. The entire stem should be removed back to its point of origin. This very thin
stem will never produce any quality blooms, so just cut it off.
A number of years ago I wrote about a deadheading method that I have often used. It was suggested by a number of people that what I was doing was “wrong” and that no rose gardener would use this
method because, well, they all seemed to have a reason. Judges examining my rose garden during the garden contest questioned me on why I did not prune my roses the “right” way. I have always said judge a garden by the overall beauty and not by how the beauty was achieved. There may be something we can learn from the unorthodoxy of another gardener. Then approximately 20 years ago a very successful national rose exhibitor wrote an article on his methods of growing roses and in it he said that he used the method that I am about to tell you about and all of a sudden it became the rage! This method is rather simple in that you just snap off the faded flowers and their peduncle (Fig 12). This method keeps as many leaves on the plant as possible. Leaves turn sunlight into food and the plant then uses that food to produce more plant and more flowers. The fewer leaves that a plant has, the less food and thus, fewer flowers it will be able to produce. When the heads are just snapped off, the rose responds much like a plant that has not been deadheaded. New shoots will begin to form from the leaves very near the top of the bush (Fig 13.)
These stems will be short and the flowers small. If we are looking for larger flowers on larger canes we cannot allow the plant to produce stems from these top leaf axils. When little stems begin to emerge we disbud them, that is, break off these emerging stems (Fig 14). This will make the plant grow new stems from further down the cane where the diameter of the cane is larger, which will lead to longer stems that will produce bigger flowers. This kind of deadheading is especially useful when used on relatively new bushes because it preserves all of the leaves which will allow the new bush to grow more quickly into a larger bush.
Finally, I am often asked about roses that grow too big and tall and I usually congratulate the asker for being a very good grower. However, then we proceed to discuss summer pruning which can keep the bushes shorter. Many roses grow long stems before they bloom. They may have as many as ten to fifteen leaves between the origin of the stem and the bloom. The usual strategy would be to cut off this stem at the first five leaflet leaf (Fig 15). Doing this would result in the next bloom being about 1½ feet higher than the one being cut off. We could also cut this stem off about five leaves further down which would result in the next bloom still being higher but not too much higher (Fig 15). A third option is to cut the stem down to the point that only the last two leaves remain (Fig 16). This will result in a very substantial stem for the rebloom and the plant will be only minimally taller with the next bloom.
This is often used by professional greenhouse rose growers in commercial rose production. Just
remember, how you prune is entirely your choice. There is no absolute “right” or “wrong” way. But
choose wisely to get exactly what you want.