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Some roses need winter attention

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By Jeneen Wiche

No need to wait on putting the roses to bed this year. We have gone from the frying pan to the ice bath in short order this season. I don’t get rose protection questions like I used to; it seems most have gone the “Knock Out” road so little maintenance is required.  Knock Out roses can stand a little attention now but really there is no pressure. 

Those of you with the fancy hybrid tea and grandiflora roses may want to get the mulch ready. The number one thing that has to happen before winter cleanup starts has already happened. The weather (not the calendar) dictates when roses go dormant. 

Shrub roses and climbers (and those in the Knock Out series) are less fussy in terms of pruning and hardiness so these can often be left alone until timely (in spring or summer) pruning is necessary. If these rose species need some attention, you can thin out spindly and old canes and reduce the plants in size now; finish off the rest of your pruning in the spring. Be mindful that some climbers and ramblers bloom in spring so they should be more heavily pruned in summer after bloom.

The canes and root system of the plants need to be exposed to some chilling in order to go dormant so we do not want to mulch the crown and roots of the plant too early. Mulching too soon effectively protects the plant from the cold weather so you may inadvertently hinder the chilling needed to go dormant.

If you mulch too early, the plant will be fooled into not going dormant and therefore be more susceptible to winter damage. Three hard freezes put this all in motion and cause the plant’s juices to drain from the canes, returning to the roots for winter energy. 

Since hybrid teas, grandifloras and floribundas have slowed for the winter, go ahead and prune away any spindly growth, leaving four or five of the healthiest canes. 

Prune the healthiest canes back to about two or three feet in order to prevent winter winds from jostling the plant.  Canes could be broken off from the bud union or the root system can be damaged if high winds whip through the canes; thinning and reducing the plant in size will prevent this. 

Don’t trim them back too far, at this point, save the rest for later in early spring. Typically we see some dieback on the tips of canes due to winter damage, but this can be pruned out before spring growth begins in March. 

At this point, you can cut the roses back to about 12 inches.  Roses seem to respond better to a hard pruning in the spring than if left lone. A hard pruning encourages healthier new growth.

Once you have done a little trimming and thinning of your roses go ahead and take measures to protect the bud union. Hybrid teas, grandifloras and floribundas are grafted to hardy rootstock so the graft is what creates the special rose that you have.

The fist-like union at the base of the plant should be protected by about 10 inches of mulch mounded over the plant in order to protect the integrity of that particular cultivar. If the plant is killed to the ground and begins to sucker from beneath the graft it will come back “from the wild”; meaning that the plant is now whatever the rootstock was. In order to protect this graft mound about 10 inches of fresh mulch around the base of the plant.

Remove old leaves and mulch from the bed if you consistently have pest problems; disease and insects can over winter here. This will not prevent insect and disease problems entirely, but it does reduce the incidence overall. 

In the spring, usually sometime in early March, you will notice the plants starting to come alive again. Pull away your protective mulch at this time.