The cadillac of roses is the hybrid tea, the type of rose that the florists make all their money off of.
Good pruning begins with remembering that the Valentine’s Day big money is in “long stem roses.” That’s right, ideally a traditionally pruned hybrid tea produces very long stems with a single, show-stopping bloom at each end. This gives you a lot of clues to our final goal plant: we’re going to need to remove a lot of plant every year, and we’ll need to make the plant very low in spring so the long stems don’t put the summer flowers higher than we can see them.
This step by step will help you make your hybrid tea roses bear the champion flowers that is their potential. Pruning is a major factor in getting the best blooms out of these traditionally beloved plants.
1) Timing and Tools for Your Spring Pruning
You’ll need to make many cuts near the center base of this thorny plant, so loppers are a must, letting you reach in comfortably. Wear hide gloves to protect you from the prickles. Rose is weak wooded, so you’ll be able to cut even fairly thick canes with hand pruners, but don’t be tempted to strain.
Major pruning work on hybrid teas and all roses is done in the early spring. Rose canes are killed by low temperatures, so you want to delay pruning until winter has done its damage and you can see which canes have been killed. If possible, time your pruning for after the threat of coldest days and before the swelling of buds in spring.
Sometimes we don’t always get to have ideal timing, especially in spring. It’s ok to wait until later, as it just means that you’ll set back your rose’s bloom some. It’s also ok to prune too early, but you might cause extra winter damage and you’ll have to follow up with additional pruning again later in the year.
2) Cut Out Unhealthy Canes
As always, step one of pruning is to remove dead, damaged, and diseased growth. Roses are sensitive to winter frost and the rest of the year are attacked by dozens of fungi, insects, molds, and bacteria. Each year, roses grow a lot of wood and each year a lot of it dies. In short, there will be a lot of dead wood to remove.
Beware that older rose wood will be brown or flaky-barked instead of the green of newer wood, but this older wood is often still alive and can be important to the central framework of the plant. Don’t mistake old brown wood for dead wood. You can test if wood is alive by tracing: lightly scratching it with your pruners. Green or bright white on the inside means it’s alive; brown all through means it’s dead.
3) Remove Suckers
Suckers are any growth from below the graft union of your hybrid tea. You need to rip them off your rose.
Look carefully at the base of your plant. You probably see a swollen-looking area just above the soil level. This is the graft union, where the lovely-flowering plant you bought was grafted onto the roots of another plant you didn’t mean to buy. That other plant is our rootstock. We want its roots, but nothing else.
Suckers will sprout from the rootstock and must be removed. Try not to cut off the suckers. Ideally, rip them out by hand at the base. Ripping wounds the rootstock, making it less likely to resprout at that point.
Note: this step doesn’t need to be done in spring, so if you can’t be sure that the sucker is truly a sucker instead of a cane from your rose, wait. Let it grow, examine it in summer for different-looking leaves or flowers, and rip it out then.
4) Select a Framework of Flowering Canes; Remove Others
It’s time to take a step back and look at what you have left. From the mess of canes you see now, you want to choose around five strong ones originating at or near the base. You also want them to be evenly spaced, radiating away from the center and upright. These make your plant’s framework. If you’ve pruned like this in earlier years, they’ll be easy to identify.
Note that hybrid teas get heavily, heavily pruned. You’ll be far exceeding the typical rule of 1/3.
Look for the canes that most closely match this profile—these are the ones you will save, and not cut into yet. Thick and green is good; these guys have a lot of energy. Thin, flimsy, or not growing straight are unsuitable.
To find your candidate five or so main stems, cut out the thin weak stuff and step back. See if you can pick out, from the greatly reduced set of canes you have now, your five or so to make your framework. Once you have done so, thin out all other canes by cutting them down at their bases.
5) Shorten Your Framework Canes to 1/3-1/2
Cut each back between one third to one half their length. Cut back to living wood (has green and white on the inside), to a point about a quarter inch above a living node. Ideally, this node has a bud that faces away from the center of the plant. This directs growth to spread away from the other canes.
Roses are alternate-branching, so cut on an angle. The angle of your cut matches the angle of the dormant bud you cut above.
Cutting these canes back seems extreme—we’ve already punished the plant so much—but this step is where the long stems come from. The buds on this framework will put up long growth with very large flowers on the end, because all the energy in the plant’s roots is channelled up into so few buds.
6) In Summer: Deadhead and Tidy
Deadhead hybrid teas by cutting below a spent flower down to the highest node with a leaf that has five leaflets. This is where a strong bud will be, to hopefully open and rebloom soon after you cut.
From time to time, a cane will sprout and run in the wrong direction, bolting out of the form you had in mind for your rose. Just cut it out. There is plenty more where that came from.
Your choice: consider ceasing deadheading at the end of summer. This will allow the remaining blooms to produce hips, the fruit of roses. On some roses, hips are an attractive feature that last through the winter. Also, some growers believe that allowing the hips to develop reduces winter kill of wood.
Walheim, Lance. Roses for Dummies. IDG Books Worldwide, Inc. 2000.
Turnbull, Cass. Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning, 2 ed.. 2006.