As winter approaches we turn our attention to preparing the garden for slumber. Beds are mulched, perennials are cut back, tender bulbs are lifted and stored, and we prepare to protect our roses from winter’s chill. The timing of your winter rose care will be determined by your area, however, a helpful reminder is to use Thanksgiving as a deadline for zone 5, earlier for zone 4, and later for zones 6 and up.
Step 1. When cutting back your roses bear in mind that roses die from the top down. When pruning your roses in late fall or early winter, plan on cutting back to about 2 1/2 to 3 feet. This will give you some latitude when it comes to winter kill. This is a general rule that can be applied to hybrid teas and most floribunda roses. Climbers and ramblers should not be cut back to this extreme, but rather tied back to trellis or fencing in order to keep the canes from snapping in the wind.
Step 2. When pruning, take care by using gloves. Using sharpened, clean by-pass pruners make a cut at an angle. General removal of deadwood or crossed branches can be accomplished at this time. Strip and remove all remaining foliage.
Step 3. Many will recommend removing all but the strongest four to five canes. This is a good technique for hybrid teas, especially those used for cut flowers. This is a judgment call. Your pruning will depend on the type of bush you are looking to create. When pruning we will often recommend filling your cuts with either a clear nail polish or even white glue. This serves to seal the cut and prevent pests such as cane borer bees from nesting in your roses. These insects are dormant in the winter and the cuts will generally seal themselves over time.
Step 4. Winter damage to rose bushes most often occurs when severe winds, or snow loads, rock the plant or shift it so it is loosened from the soil. This can expose roots which then dehydrate and produce severe damage to the plant. For this reason we encourage you to stake your pruned rose. This will help stabilize your plant and prevent damage from freezing and thawing. Place the stake while you can still drive it into the soil. After the ground freezes it will help anchor the plant.
Step 5. After the ground does freeze (in cold weather climates) apply some method of providing a retainer for mulch, soil, or shredded leaves. This can be a rose cone, peach basket, or in this case a rose collar. Protect the bud-union by applying 10-12 inches of organic material. Most areas can winter protect with soil from the garden. Take care when using rose cones or baskets. A plastic pail will often “cook” a rose bush, especially one situated in a southern exposure. In colder climates this original mounding up can be supplemented with pine boughs or chips. Take care to mulch in plants after the ground has frozen, for done too early can only provide a safe winter habitat for field mice or rodents who will then feast on the roots over the winter.
Step 6. Spring removal. Generally your roses can be uncovered around the first week of April. If you are in a warmer climate, clean them up earlier. An adage was to uncover your roses just before you prune your forsythia (which is just after the bloom fades). At this time you can remove most of the soil by hand and then using full water pressure, remove soil from the crown by spraying it with a strong spray. When the buds break in the warm weather apply a fungicide and begin feeding in May.