By Lynn Snetsinger, Consulting Rosarian
Arcadia, California

By now your roses should be starting to leaf out. When they have about 2” of growth you should start feeding them. You should also start thinking about thumb pruning. Thumb pruning is a process Jeff Stage taught me for eliminating unwanted canes from your rose plants before those canes actually grow. I wrote an extensive article on the subject years ago, so I will just go over the basics here.

Thumb pruning is a simple operation performed to remove canes that will grow in the wrong direction, to limit the number of canes the plant puts out, and to keep the center of the plant open. Why does this matter?

For a rose exhibitor, a cane growing in the wrong direction is of little value. It will not produce the nice straight hefty stem we strive for. Look at the emerging leaves. The cane that follows those leaves will grow in the same direction as the leaves. You want to eliminate canes that will grow sideways, into another cane or across the center of the rose bush. Canes that grow sideways will not produce straight stems. They will grow sideways and then curve upward to find the sun. Canes that grow into each other will compete for the same space. The leaves of one will be damaged by the thorns of the other. Canes that grow into the center of the rose bush will provide a perfect haven for diseases to start.  

Limiting the number of canes will force the rose bush to put its energy into the remaining stems and blooms. Those stems will be stronger, and the blooms they put out will be larger. You want to keep the sets of foliage that appear to be the strongest, growing to the outside of the plant, and facing the sun. On some canes you will find one, two or three separate sets of foliage beginning to grow from the same place. Pick the strongest set of foliage and eliminate the others (you don’t want 2 eyes coming from one socket!). 

Clearing the center of the plant improves air circulation. When there is a cluster of stems and foliage in the center of the rose bush, any moisture that lands on that foliage will be slow to evaporate. Most disease spores thrive in an environment that is moist for several hours. By removing this foliage, sun and air are able to dry off the moisture more quickly reducing the chance for the spores to take hold. Mildew will start high up on the plant. Rust and Blackspot tend to start at the base of the plant because the spores bounce up from the ground and onto the lowest foliage when they are watered. For this reason, I also eliminate most of the stems that emerge from the bottom 12” of the plant, being careful not to disturb any nice new basals growing from the crown. 

Thumb pruning is easy to do. Once you have selected a potential cane that you want to eliminate, simply snap it off with your thumb where that foliage emerges from the main cane. You can also do this with a budeye that has not even put out foliage yet if you can tell that it is not going to grow in a good position. Some rose show exhibitors wait for all of the canes to grow and then go back and cut out the unwanted growth. It accomplishes the same purpose, but in my mind thumb pruning is preferable. The bush is wide open when I work on it. I don’t have to wade through a tangle of foliage or get down on the ground to find the canes I want to keep. I don’t have to use my pruners. I don’t create more yard waste to dispose of.  I don’t run the risk of damaging a good cane trying to remove an undesirable cane, and I don’t run the risk of getting stabbed in the process. 

The goal of every rose show exhibitor is to produce gorgeous blooms on long, healthy, straight, stems with foliage that has as little damage as possible on disease free plants. Thumb pruning is one of the first steps in reaching this goal.

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© Copyright Lynn Snetsinger, all rights reserved. 

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Photos © Copyright Kitty Belendez

Updated January 4, 2016

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