Pruning and Fertilizing Your Roses

The Roger Lambelin Rose
The Roger Lambelin Rose

Article written by Lynn, our Master Rosarian. 

Well, it appears that spring finally found its way to the Spokane area. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for it. Of course there is a lot of work to be done now that the snow has disappeared, but that is what spring is all about.

If you have any questions about that work, just come to our meetings. We would love to discuss any issues you may have. There are always people there who have dealt with various gardening and rose problems or just general spring matters, and you may have something new to us that we would like to hear.

When to Prune?

The rule of thumb, not set in stone, is to prune when the forsythia blooms, or the dandelions if you have been blessed with some. That’s not to say you can’t wait longer if the weather doesn’t suit, but that is a general guideline. Since the forsythia is in full bloom in Spokane, you are okay to begin pruning.

One of the questions that always comes up at pruning clinics is “Can you kill your rose by pruning it wrong?” The only way you can do this is if you either “shovel prune,” translated “dig it out,” or if you cut back BELOW a bud graft on the grafted roses.

That said, don’t worry. Even if you cut out something you wanted to keep or cut to a wrong bud eye, you won’t kill your rose. They are quite capable of straightening out any of your mistakes. It may take a few months to have them back to looking their best, but in the meantime they will grow very well in spite of our efforts.

A Pretty Red Rose: Dr. Huey

Dr Huey
Dr Huey
Growing from the roots.

Spokane is known for the lovely dark red roses of spring, i.e. ‘Dr. Huey.’ That is because this is the rootstock used frequently on grafted roses. If the named rose is either weak or not protected properly, it dies or freezes, but the rootstock survives, and if there is a bud eye left on the rootstock when they are grafting the named rose onto it, it may grow, giving you the ‘Dr. Huey’ rose in place of what you purchased.

Unfortunately, ‘Dr. Huey’ blooms only once and then sends out very long, thorny canes for the rest of the summer. If this is your problem, it is best to dig it out and start over. Own root roses do not do this, as they are not grafted onto any other rootstock. What you see is what you get. Spokanites who have not been rose society members or gotten information elsewhere do not know this and naively continue to think their rose is the original.

How to Prune Your Rose

Pruning is done by cutting about a quarter inch above a bud eye at a slant of around 45 degrees. You don’t need to be precise, as roses are not going to measure the angle, but cutting too close to the bud eye may cause it to be damaged and therefore not begin to grow, leaving a stump which will die back to the next bud eye.

You don’t want to cut way above the bud eye, either, as that leaves an unsightly stump, but again, if you happen to cut wrong, you can correct it. Generally speaking, you should look for a bud eye that is directed outward to give the rose bush a more open center for air circulation, but one person at the pruning clinic asked about a rose that wants to grow more horizontally, and in that case, if it isn’t a ground cover rose, you can prune to an inward facing bud eye.

Correct pruning of your stems

See how easy that is? It’s all in getting out your pruning hardware, putting on the gloves and going at it! Experience is your best teacher, and for the timid, come to the meeting and express your concerns. Go for the pruning cut on the right, and your rose bush will love you for it.


After you prune it is good to use a fungicide on your plants to protect from blackspot and powdery mildew. Over the years we learn that powdery mildew can be more easily cured, but blackspot can trouble you throughout the year, as it is more difficult to eliminate. If you prefer the organic method you can try GreenCure® which is a sodium bicarbonate product. If you have had problems with blackspot in the past try Spectracide Immunox Multi Purpose Fungicide Spray

Concentrate might be what you want to try. It has to be applied every two weeks, but it won’t wash off, and after the weather warms up and your roses are looking healthy you can probably eliminate the spraying, as we are fortunate in the Spokane area not to be plagued with high humidity and abundant rainfall. But having said that, blackspot is better prevented than trying to control it. Check with your local garden store for products that will help with that.

Fertilizing Your Roses

Fertilizer of the organic kind can be applied any time of the year, but it is best to wait for new growth to get well underway which shows you the soil temperature is right for accepting the nutrients in granular fertilizer. My fellow editor and friend, Rich Baer, said in the Portland Rose Chatter bulletin of April 2019:

Rosarium Garden Center Fertilizer
Organic Garden Fertilizer
from Rosarium Garden Center

I have seen suggestions that it is a good idea to fertilize when the pruning is finished, but again it is not something that I would recommend. If you are going to use strictly organic fertilizer, it is fine to apply it at any time of the year. It will remain dormant in or on the soil until the soil temperature exceeds 50 degrees when the soil bacteria will begin to digest the organic fertilizer and release the fertilizer elements into the soil for use by the plants.

By the time the soil reaches 50 degrees, the roses will be growing vigorously and will be able to use the nutrients released from the organic fertilizer. If, however, you are using a fertilizer like the Portland Rose Society’s 15-10-10, I would suggest that you wait until about the middle of April before any applications are made. The chemical fertilizer will dissolve whenever water is present in the soil.

If there are rains, the ingredients in the fertilizer will move down into the soil into and beyond the root zone. If the plant is not actively growing at that time the elements will be lost to the groundwater and will provide nothing positive to your roses. So, wait for that first application. Your soil will have plenty of available nutrients for the new rose growth without you worrying that they will develop deficiency symptoms.

Portland’s weather is not as severe; in fact, Rich starts pruning in February, maybe earlier, so you can just add a month onto his advice and wait until probably mid-May when our soil temperatures are 50 degrees. And while I don’t have access to the label, I would assume Portland’s fertilizer has some micronutrients as well.

Still, a good granular fertilizer will get your roses off to a good start.

And here is another idea for you if you can spare the time. A number of years ago we had a member, Irene, who lived in the Hillyard area. I visited her at least once at her home, and she told me something she always did. She froze her banana peels and then in the spring, thawed them out and made a slurry with them in her blender and poured this around her rose bushes.

Why do we eat bananas? A good source of potassium. This slurry is organic, so we are just adding one more organics to the soil. So it was very interesting to me when I was reading through the Philadelphia Rose Society April 2019 newsletter, edited by Bill Kozemchak, to find an article written by Carla Zambelli about that very thing:

“The formula for the smoothie is: I collect a bag of banana peels and keep them sealed in a plastic bag in my freezer until I use them. Then I rough chop the peels and toss into the blender with whatever spent coffee grounds I have on hand and a couple of cups or so of very warm tap water. (I never drink flavored coffee and I would never recommend using artificially flavored coffee grounds. I don’t know how the artificial flavor chemicals would affect the plants.) The consistency of this smoothie for rose bushes should be on the thick side, but pourable. I don’t take my blender outside I pour the goop into a plastic pitcher.

I then go around to each bush and dig a few ounces in around the base of each bush. I have a standard sized blender and only a few rose bushes right now, so one batch of rose smoothie is all I need every time I do this. I used to dig the peels in around the base of each bush, but given the critter population living with woods and farmers’ fields I have developed the rose smoothie which I dig in around the base with a small spade I use to transplant seedlings.

“I will feed my roses this concoction every two weeks until Labor Day. Sometimes I am not so religious about this as I have a large garden, but I try my best.”

I always throw the coffee grounds out on my vegetable garden rather than just disposing of them, so using them on your roses would be okay as well.

According to Google, who knows everything, banana peels contain phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and copper, and each cubic yard of coffee grounds (that’s a lot of coffee grounds!!) provides 10 pounds of nitrogen (0.09% available). And if you don’t want to put the coffee grounds on your rose beds, you can add them to the compost pile, providing bacteria the energy they need to turn organic matter into compost.

This is a busy time of year, for sure. If you have placed an order for new roses, either at Northland Rosarium or from somewhere else shipping barefoot roses, you probably have already received those.

This week has done a lot toward getting the soil ready to receive the rose bushes. Be careful about falling for good prices on packaged roses, as there is no telling how long they have been sitting in a warm place without water. For every story about that little miniature they got at a grocery store that grew like crazy you will hear many more about poor growth habits or early demise.

Just be careful!


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