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Pruning Roses—essential to know!

by Satish Prahbu, Master Rosarian, South Carolina Rose Society.

Prahbu Garden


“But he who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose”

-Anne Bronte


I read this quote in in the award-winning newsletter, The Rose Ecstasy, Kitty Belendez, editor. I was getting ready to seriously say, “I wish to respectfully disagree with you, Ms. Bronte!” Because it is like saying to a child: “If you want to ride a bicycle, you must be prepared to keep falling off the bicycle; if you do not want to fall, then don’t try to ride a bicycle!” That is why I seriously disagree with this statement. I would like to say, “Learn how to ride a bicycle and master the art of balancing. Then you won’t fall ever again! Similarly, I would like to say, you can learn how to prune or otherwise handle a rose bush or a rose stem without getting stuck by thorns. It is a very simple process and it can be easily done! But getting back to Anne Bronte, I decided to look her up. And I found out that she was an English writer who wrote both prose and poetry and this quote was from a poem titled ‘The Narrow Pathway’ which was published in around 1845 and it had little to do with growing or showing a rose. However, various people have interpreted it in a way which suited their purpose and some have used it in promoting products they make or sell. Some commentators have aptly described it as talking about the difficulties one may face as one toils along the pathway, upwards towards their creator or the Supreme Being. I have had the pleasure of reading many award-winning articles on pruning roses with titles such as ‘the basics of pruning roses’, rose pruning 101, fundamentals of rose pruning, how to prune a rose bush, prune like a master rosarian, so on and so forth. I am very surprised to find that hardly anyone speaks about how not to get stuck while you are doing it! It does appear that getting stuck by thorns has been universally accepted as a part and parcel of rose gardening! Does it really have to be so? I think not!


A long time ago, I remember working in the rose garden every weekend and on Monday morning, during the first pause in work, I would settle down in the holding room with alcohol swabs and a 23- gauge hypodermic needle to extricate a few thorns in my fingers, acquired during the week-end activities. I started thinking, that there simply must be a better way to do this. I had seen enough pictures of rose-heroes wounded by rose thorns on forearms and scalp, showing bleeding from those injuries on the Facebook. It is my contention that posting this type of pictures can potentially turn off a would-be rose grower and hence it is an absolute no-no!


Then I started thinking: Why does one get stuck? The thorns are sitting on the stems, minding their own business. They will not jump on you like an attack-trained dog. Therefore, it is clear, we are flinging ourselves or our body parts at the thorns so that they can stick us! Can we all agree on this one point? The second fact is that all thorns are positioned pointing downwards. Which means that if we approach each stem from above downwards while we are attempting to hold a stem, the chances of getting stuck are negligible to none. Wearing a pair of leather gloves further reduces the incidence and intensity of these sticks. On the contrary, if our hand approaches a stem with an upwardly directed motion, we are inviting the thorn to stick us and they will, even if you are wearing a glove. Further, grasp a stem gently as you are approaching it with a careful downward movement. If you feel the beginnings of a prick through your gloves, you can let go, re-group and try this maneuver again. The only other point one must remember is never to dive into the heart of a bush for cutting off that dead cane or any other purpose. If one stretches his or her hand into the middle of the bush, although there would be no sticks as you venture in, because you are most likely to go in a downward pointed motion, you will most certainly get stuck as you start to withdraw your hand, because it is coming out in an upward pointed motion, inviting the thorns to snag you, your hand or forearm, or your sleeves. Therefore, cutting off that dead cane from the center of the bush is never the first order of business as frequently mentioned in many articles. Rather, while pruning, one must always prune from outside toward inside of a bush and from the top down to the bottom. To start pruning, just get close enough to a bush where with your out-stretched non-dominant hand, you can hold the tip of a stem closest to you. Holding that stem by its tip, make a cut approximately two feet below where you are holding (or any other length suitable for you). Now the cut stem is safely dangling from your hand. Without getting it any closer to your body, simply place this cut stem directly into a wheelbarrow, giving it no opportunity to stick you. Dropping cut stems on the ground to be picked up later is not a good habit, as it affords another encounter with the same stems and another chance to get stuck. Repeat this process while moving around the bush in a clockwise or anti-clockwise motion, taking down one stem at a time. After completing pruning one circle of outermost stems, start repeating this process for the next series of stems which were lying somewhere in the interior of the bush. Thus, you can complete reducing the height of each bush by approximately two feet. Now you can remove another layer of stems, each of them two feet long or a length needed to get your bush down to the final height you are trying to achieve. Thus, when the bush is reduced to a smaller size, both in height and width, it becomes easier and safer to start reducing the number of canes if you feel that there are too many canes. Now you can safely remove the dead canes which might be in the center of this bush. Using a lopper with medium or long handles helps you further to keep your hands away from the thorns.


It is my hope and dream that all rosarians would start paying attention to this simple observation so that getting stuck by rose thorns while working in the garden will truly become a thing of the past! I also hope that all CRs would promote this idea in their talks and articles. You will find that it is not necessary to wear a so-called gauntlet glove, which covers your arm with a protective leather sleeve, or even a Tinman-Suit! I will restrict this discussion to this singular concern alone, leaving all the rest of rules to be dealt with in a future article. Personally, ever since I started following this method 15 years ago, I finish spring pruning over 400 bushes each year without suffering a single rose thorn prick!


Photos by Satish Prahbu

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