Question: Is it OK to start pruning my roses?

Answer: Roses are one of the most beloved flowers, but also the most feared by backyard gardeners. More garden books have been written on topics concerning roses with many garden clubs, societies and organizations devoted to their cultivation. But whether your garden has one or a dozen different roses, a few simple rules of thumb will overcome the mystery and help you raise a prize winning specimen.

The most common question asked regarding good rose care is when and how to prune. First it is important to know why you are pruning. The obvious reason is pruning will improve the appearance of the plant by removing any dead and diseased wood, but it also improves the health of the plant. It allows increased air flow as well as sunlight into the center of the plant, decreasing disease and the quality and quantity of flowering. To produce a clean cut without tearing the wood, use a sharp pair of hook and blade type pruning shears. An anvil type of pruner crushes the rose stem. Long-handled shears are good for thick canes or others that are difficult to reach.

Most roses should be pruned just before growth begins in March and early April. Exceptions to this rule include some heirloom and climbing roses that produce blooms on last year's wood. The first step is to remove brown canes that are dead, diseased or damaged canes. Cut the stems approximately 1 inch below the darkened area into the green wood. Once the cut is made you should be able to only see white rather than tan pith at the center of the cut. The cut should be made at a 45-degree angle, just above a new outward facing bud. Next cut any branches that grow into the center of the plant. Check for crossing branches and remove the weaker of the two. Crossing branches will rub up against each other and create a wound where disease organisms can enter. The last pruning steps are for creating a shapely plant. Most hybrid, grandifloras, floribundas can be pruned to 12 to 24 inches in height with nine to 12 large healthy canes.

To answer the question of when to fertilize, remember to have a soil test first. Roses grow best in a soil with pH between 5.5 and 7.0. Roses are heavy feeders and benefit from the addition of 3 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1000 square feet divided into three applications per year, the first mid- to late-May, mid-July, and the third in autumn after a killing frost.

Mona Bawgus is a certified master gardener and consumer horticulturist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. Write to her c/o Rutgers Cooperative Extension, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. Email: