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Pruning

It feels like fall when cedar pruning starts

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It always feels like fall when cedar pruning season starts. Cedar pruning is usually written into landscape maintenance contracts and it starts in fall; it can run into the New Year easily depending on site size and work load but normally the goal is to get everything sheared before Christmas.

 

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All you need: a ladder and good, sharp Stihl power shears.

 

First day

Last week I had my first full cedar pruning day of the season, cheered on by patches of Rudbeckias still holding on to summer. Just like me.

The line I was pruning covered enclosed patios and it was slower than usual because some owners have incredibly cluttered patios. And, of course, I didn’t have the right of way so I had to be careful not to damage anything.

 

The set-up

To properly top cedars a ladder is mandatory. I also used two sets of Stihl shears: one short model for tight spots and one extendable unit for topping. Remember to sharpen your blades before starting your cedar pruning season. Sharp blades glide through the foliage and give you a nice cut. Dull blades slow you down and leave little strands sticking out. Try to avoid this by sharpening your blades.

Unless your truck is nearby, always bring a jerry can with mixed gas to avoid unnecessary walking. It wastes valuable shearing time.

I also keep my water bottle handy.

No robots

Never approach cedar shearing like a robot. On this day I had to recall that patio owners value their privacy so I sheared the sides in a straight wall line, except where there were obvious deliberate undulations in the hedge.

The tops are usually hit much tighter for a nice tight laser line.

Just remember NOT to prune between the gaps because the owners want the cedars to grow into the gaps and thereby give them the privacy they crave so much.

Once in a while step back and check on your top line to make sure your laser isn’t off.

 

Clean-ups

Don’t go cheap on clean-ups. You can expect to do some hand cleaning off the tops of plants and outdoor patio furniture because cedar debris is fine. But don’t stress about the small stuff; use a blower for the final round and put all pots and furniture back.

Yes, shearing all day can be hard on your muscles but you get the satisfaction of seeing great looking cedar hedges.

Have some fun with it.

 

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All done: there’s a decent top line and the sides are still green. No pruning happened between individual plants because only solid hedges provide solid privacy.

 

How to please Block Watch with your pruning

By | Pruning, Security, Trees | No Comments

It’s always a good idea to ask yourself why you are pruning. In this blog post we’ll examine pruning ordered by Block Watch.

I’m not completely familiar with Block Watch but I know that volunteers keep their eyes open in their neighbourhood for any suspicious activities. And that includes overgrown trees and shrubs where they cause obstruction issues, block lights at night and could potentially provide cover for criminals and perverts.

So that’s how I ended up pruning two frequently used staircase areas.

 

Dogwoods

 

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Before.

 

This isn’t anything shocking at mid-season. The shrubby dogwood (Cornus) is encroaching into the walkway so I simply power-sheared it back into submission. Now all passersby can get through unmolested by vegetation and any criminals lurking in the shrubbery should be easy to spot. There are also several daylilies (Hemerocallis) that now have some room like the one visible in the bottom left corner.

Since it’s a bad idea to put power-shears in the ground, use hand snips to fix any missed and protruding branches. The same goes for any ugly, shredded stems. Proper raking and weeding should be done before a courtesy blow.

 

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After shot before clean-up blow.

 

Sumac

 

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Before.

 

Again, this doesn’t look so bad unless you use this staircase at night. The sumac tree (Rhus typhina) blocks light from reaching the stairs.

So I pruned branches away from the light pole and from above the stairs. But there was a lot more to do here.

Sumac likes to send suckers up so I had to hunt them down and remove them because the last thing we need here is more mature sumac trees. I also removed dead branches.

Then I snipped roses and Rhododendrons, plus I pinched off the old spent flowers for a cleaner look. It’s a time consuming activity but it can be done on smaller specimens to achieve a cleaner look. Just make sure you don’t pinch off the new buds.

Weeds and cultivation were the last things on my list before end of the day clean-up blow.

 

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After shot. The lamp is clearly visible.

 

 

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Rhus typhina distinctive flower spike.

 

Always ask yourself WHY you are pruning. This blog post shows the importance of clear high-profile staircases and night time light penetration.

Hydrangea horror shows to avoid

By | Pruning, Species | No Comments

Hydrangeas are beautiful workhorses in our West Coast landscapes. Healthy Hydrangeas reward us with lots of beautiful flowers, many of them in big mop heads. I’m so used to seeing them I don’t even take pictures of them every season.

Lately, I’ve been running into Hydrangea horror shows and so I thought this whole thing begged for its own blog post.

 

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Hydrangeas come in all sorts of colours and we love them all.

 

Pruning

 

When it comes to pruning, we can follow the same general rule: prune after flowering. Some people leave the spent flower heads on all winter so they have something to look at. Add a bit of frost and you have a nice show in your winter garden.

Alas, strata landscape bosses like everything tidy so the flowers are deadheaded and the overall size of each shrub is reduced. The key is not removing the old second year canes on which the current year flowers emerge. There are some varieties that flower on all canes but most follow this rule.

If you remove too much of the old second year cane, all you will get next season is greenery. Flowers won’t come until the second season.

This is where problems arise. Homeowners torch their Hydrangeas almost to the ground and when the shrubs fail to flower in the following season, the frustrated owners hack them back. And so it goes until I correct them.

 

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The owner hacked back his Hydrangea and most of the old canes went missing.

 

Landscapers are also guilty of taking too much old wood in their struggle to manage shrub sizes inside strata complexes. Strata unit owners notice when their favourite Hydrangeas fail to flower. I made this mistake early in my landscaping career and I still remember the old lady complaining to my manager about her missing flowers. And I never forgot that lesson.

 

 

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Not much of a show, is it? I’m almost certain these shrubs were cut back too much last year. You can expect flowers next season.

 

I saved the worst example for last. This is a high-profile walkway and the strata complex’s Facebook group lit up with negative comments soon after this pruning job. And for good reason.

The timing is all wrong because these Hydrangeas are flowering nicely. Why remove flowers at their peak?

The other problem is the severity of the pruning job. I would have at least left some green or alternatively, removed entire canes. Looking at severed canes while the rest of the shrub is still intact and flowering is a bit weird.

 

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It would be best to wait until the flowers fade and then remove maybe the top third of each cane, roughly 2-3 buds down. When you do this, you can also select the 1-3 biggest canes and prune them right down at ground level. Otherwise the old wood accumulates; what we want is nice straight canes growing out of last year’s wood.

 

Conclusion

So please remember that Hydrangeas flower from canes growing on second year wood. If you cut back the older canes too hard you will only get green foliage the following season and your clients will wonder what happened to their annual flower show.

Prune your Hydrangeas after flowering and cut back your canes down by 2-3 buds. That should guarantee another flower show next year and that’s why we plant Hydrangeas in our landscapes.

If your Hydrangeas aren’t producing flowers this season then I would be willing to bet that your pruning last year was too harsh.

Pruning 101: consider shrub peak flowering before pruning

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Today I found out about an interesting pruning “mishap” from which we can learn several lessons. It starts out like many other mid-season pruning jobs with extendable power shears and fully flushed out shrubs. The foreman went in and pruned everything, especially off the tops.

But there is a glitch. You can’t treat all of your shrubs the same way because different species grow and flower differently. This is another clear illustration of the importance of plant identification. It’s crucial knowing a little bit about all of your shrubs on site.

And keep in mind the rule: it’s normally best to prune after flowering.

Home gardeners

Home gardeners look out at their gardens all year, season after season and they enjoy their flowering shrubs. When you come in and eliminate their one annual flower show, they get angry. Beware of home gardeners!

So, this blog post covers three shrub species: Callicarpa bodinieri, Philadelphus and Buddleja davidii. Only the Philadelphus was past its flower peak which normally runs from June to July on the West Coast. In this landscape example the shrub was clearly past its flowering peak and therefore a reasonable target for pruning.

 

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Power-sheared Philadelphus

 

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Philadelphus flower example

 

Unfortunately, the other two shrubs were poor pruning targets for July. Buddleja davidii flowers from June to September and clearly the few remaining flowers after pruning are still immature.

 

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Look closely and you will see a few developing flower spikes.

 

So the gardeners know they will miss out on their usual flower show which would have looked something like this.

 

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Buddleja davidii flower spike.

 

The third shrub, Callicarpa bodinieri, was by far the worst choice for July pruning because it reaches its flowering peak from June to August AND the flowers turn into showy purple fruits from September to October. I personally find the fruits much nicer than the flowers but we have to keep the flowers on to get fruit.

Luckily, the Callicarpas aren’t as imposing as the other two shrubs so only their tops went missing. But of course for veteran home gardeners any dimished flower show is apocalypse.

 

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Callicarpa bodinieri flower

 

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Callicarpa bodinieri fall fruits.

 

Clean-up

To make matters worse, the clean-ups were rough and many other plants got trampled during the procedure. We’ve already covered pruning debris clean-up in an earlier blog. Clean-ups must be perfect to match perfect pruning.

 

Conclusion

This was an extremely useful lesson showing how:

a) pruning must be timed for after peak flowering times

b) all shrubs can’t be pruned at the same time as if they were the same species

c) pruning debris clean-up must be perfect just like the pruning work and care must be taken not to destroy other garden plants during clean-up

d) plant identification skills are extremely important, don’t stop learning

The one key for mid-season pruning success

By | landscape maintenance, Pruning | No Comments

Late June on the West Coast means mid-season pruning and, depending on site size, there can be a lot of pruning to do. Especially woody shrub pruning. And while landscapers do a great job with pruning, I am finding that the clean-ups often don’t match the beautiful precise pruning work. If you want mid-season pruning success then the key is great clean-up.

 

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Pruned and cleaned-up Japanese holly (Ilex crenata).

 

Mid-season pruning 101

Most of the mid-season pruning involves shrubs which tend to push out new growth and make people panic. They also tolerate power shearing fairly well. One example is pictured below. Cornus (dogwood), Symphoricarpos albus (Common snowberry) and Ribes. All three are shrubs and tolerate shaping with power shears. Give them a few weeks and they will start to look like they were never pruned.

 

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Left to right: dogwood, snowberry and currant

 

For best results, always use good quality power shears with sharp blades. If you have lots to do, always bring a jerry can with you and keep it close by so there isn’t any unnecessary walking. Ear and eye protection is mandatory and I’m assuming everyone is always protected.

 

Exceptions

If you know your site well then this won’t be a problem. But when I prune on a new site for the first time I always ask about exceptions because they do exist. For example, some clients prefer more natural looking shrubs so you have to prune gently. Other exceptions are laurel hedge tops to be left almost untouched because they block parking stall car light beams.

 

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The KEY

I can not overemphasize this: great clean-up work that matches the pruning job is a must. I often have to go behind our crews and double-check because inevitably two big problems arise.

One problem is debris left on top. It looks fine on your pruning day but one week later you start noticing brown branches on top of green shrubs and hedges. And your clients notice, too. So always train your crews to pick debris off the tops.

 

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Note the debris left on top of the shrub. It will look way worse once it dries out and turns brown. Always check the tops after pruning.

 

Another problem is clean-up raking. This is where many workers struggle because they have to clean-up really well without removing too much soil; and they have to reach into tight spots which often gets very old. And quickly.

Again, it’s the foreman’s job to double-check before workers move on.

The ultimate sin is skipping clean-up altogether, say, in tight spaces between shrubs. There is no easy way to do the clean-up. It must match the pruning job.

Below are some examples of finished clean-up jobs. Yes, finished. It’s obvious the workers skipped the clean-up and the foreman didn’t check. The effect is horrific; it’s not even close to average when what we need is world class.

 

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Judging from the piles on the ground, this section was completely skipped.

 

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I have no idea how this pile got missed.

 

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Another “finished” section. Yes, it’s tedious but it must be done.

 

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Corrected.

 

 

Conclusion

Mid-season pruning can be extremely demanding, especially when sites are huge. The key to mid-season pruning success is perfect clean-ups. Nothing can be skipped and the aim should always be to match the clean-up with your pruning job quality. Aim for world class!

Can you really machine gun your rhododendrons?

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June on the West Coast means mid-season pruning and on large strata (multi-family) sites there can be a lot of it. So we’re busy power shearing shrubs and making sure the clean-ups are as good as the pruning.

Shrubs like dogwoods, snowberries and currants are easy to power shear into shapes because they’re fairly soft and they grow back very quickly. Almost too quickly.

 

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Left to right: Cornus, Symphoricarpos and Ribes, all are easy to power prune.

 

 

But what about rhododendrons? Can you really power shear rhodos like the other shrubs? I witnessed this recently and I don’t think it’s a good practice. I know, there is often very little time for mid-season pruning on large sites. It’s almost stressful to get everything under control and looking decent. But still, compared to the other shrubs rhodos are like the one-percenters. They give us a great show when they’re in bloom, they’re woodier and they deserve better treatment. I say spend the extra time on them.

 

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Not a bad show.

 

Also, unlike the shrubs mentioned above, they don’t grow as quickly. There is no need to rush rhodo pruning. I’m convinced that if you want a good-looking rhodo in your garden you must hand-prune it. Keep your power shears for softer shrubs.

Take a good look at the rhodo below. This is the finished product before clean-up and I can’t say I would recommend this approach to anyone.

 

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I hate the look of this because there are too many “sticks” and shredded woody branches poking out.

 

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This specimen was power-sheared along with the other shrubs which I believe was a mistake. Note the shredded wood and branch ends poking out. It’s not pretty.

If you take a bit more time you can prune it properly. First, remove any dead wood. Then, check for any nasty crossing and rubbing branches. After that, remove any branches that are touching the ground.

If you’re worried about height then clip off the newest growth with your snips. And if you have even more time, hand pick the spent flowers carefully without damaging the new buds. By taking extra time for rhodo pruning you can shape it nicely without creating unsightly wood forks.

 

Why pollarding trees gives me a rash

By | Arborist Insights, Pruning | No Comments

I’m kidding, of course, I don’t suffer from rashes after tree pruning. But I do find pollarding too forced and ugly immediately after. In summer, when the tree crowns are full of foliage the trees look fine.

Incredibly, I’ve been an ISA certified arborist since 2006 but last week was my first-ever pollarding session. Since our site was all snowy, it was a great time to prune trees.

Why pollarding?

So why do we resort to pollarding? In the very old days, people understood that cutting down all of their trees for firewood was short-sighted. So instead they pollarded their trees and then used the wood. But times have changed.

Now we pollard trees to keep them at a smaller size then they would otherwise reach. It makes sense at our site where three London plane trees (Platanus x acerifolia) are located close to the pool. See the picture below taken from my Kindle e-book: Common Strata Plants: A Guide for West Coast Landscapers, available for download from Amazon.

 

Platanus x acerifolia

Platanus x acerifolia

 

Pollarding involves the removal of the upper branches of a tree which then promotes a dense head of foliage and branches. It just looks like hell right after you do it. In a perfect world, the London plane trees could be let go to grow as big as they wished. I wish!

The trick, then, is to pick a height and pollard the trees annually. The actual work is very simple because you’re simply beheading skinny branches that shot up from the previous pruning cuts. Staying safe while you prune is more demanding.

My arborist technician apprentice climbed the tree while I stayed on the ground and used a ladder with pole pruners. Once in a while I would steal a big-brother glance at my eager apprentice to make sure his ropes were still supporting him.

 

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My work in progress. The gnarly ends of the branches don’t exactly inspire me.

 

Timing

Late winter or early spring are best for pollarding. One exception are maple (Acer species) which bleed sap when cut at these times. The pruning rule for maples is before Christmas.

If you have trees that are outgrowing their space and you don’t want to lose them or can’t afford to replace them, then by all means pollard your trees annually. The trees look horrific immediately after pruning but in summer they’re fine. Personally, I would prefer not to pollard anything.

 

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Things to consider before you “skirt” Thuja plicata trees

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Raising tree crowns by “skirting” is a common pruning job. It basically means removing the lowest branches so the crown above looks raised up. This is usually necessary when cedar trees (Thuja plicata) haven’t been pruned for a while.

Two potential problems

When you do this kind of work, don’t forget about two common pitfalls. One is not stopping and removing too many branches so that the tree looks like a lollipop. It’s unnatural and should be avoided. It’s a common problem with other tree species, not just Thuja plicata. So by all means, raise up the tree crown but know when to stop.

Two, privacy. Unless you know the site well and your directions are very specific, don’t forget to consider people’s privacy.

True story

I wish it wasn’t true but I’ve heard of a gung-ho landscaper who was servicing a new site for the first time. He walked by a double line of Thuja plicata trees separated by a wooden fence. At one corner the trees were especially low so he skirted them right up. Great. Except the owner of the unit loved every single branch and he was livid. His comments can’t be printed in a clean, family blog like mine. Suffice it to say that he failed to express himself intelligently.

But I feel for him a little bit. The tree was fine the way it was and now he has the view of a wooden fence. So when you take over a new site, get to know it well first.

Privacy

Recently we made our way around a large complex that had been neglected for many seasons. I noticed several low-hanging Thuja plicata branches and almost reached for my trusted Japanese hand-saw.

Of course, I am a Red Seal professional with many seasons under my belt. My instinct told me that the low-hanging branches were probably providing a privacy screen for the residents. If I had removed the branches they would be looking at a residential tower and its car ramp. So unless I hear otherwise from the strata council, the low hanging branches will stay. Always consider privacy issues.

Residential request

It’s very easy when your clients actually request the crown raising. In these cases it’s just a matter of knowing when to stop. And in this one residential example, the client clearly  told me to “rescue” her overwhelmed patio and plants.

So I made nice cuts until all Pieris japonica, Rhododendron and Yucca plants were no longer obstructed by the cedar trees. Remember to make three-point cuts where the weight is taken off first and then the cut completed nicely. Cedar branches are heavy.

The pruning also solved the same problem for her patio where she entertains guests in summer. She was absolutely thrilled to get some breathing room on her back patio. And happy clients are the best clients.

 

 

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Before pruning, the Pieris and Yucca plants were covered by cedar branches.

 

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Not only are the cedar branches off the plants, the patio is also unobstructed.

 

Raising Thuja plicata tree crowns is an easy pruning job but always consider owner privacy issues and know when to stop.

Camellia japonica pruning: timing and technique

By | Plant Species Information, Pruning | No Comments

I heard recently about a case where one landscape maintenance foreman pruned a lot of stuff on his site. Including Camellia japonica full of flower buds. The owner loves her Camellia and she was extremely unhappy about losing so many buds to needless pruning. Oops.

 

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Camellia japonica

 

 

Pruning involves correct technique and timing. Normally we use hand snips or power shears and both are fairly easy to use. I prefer to use hand snips whenever possible because they are quiet.

Timing depends on the specific shrub or tree in question and thus requires plant-specific knowledge. That is both exciting and scary. All top horticulture professionals have a lot of plant-specific knowledge which takes time and experience to acquire.

December request

Then this week I helped with the last service of the season at a Port Coquitlam site. And there it was again. Another Camellia japonica and a passionate owner used to enjoying her flower show. And I was ready.

The timing of the request was way off. December is not the right time to prune Camellia japonicas. The only thing I really power shear in December is cedar hedges (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’).

The proper pruning time for Camellia japonica is in spring, right before bud break, according to my Timber Press book “Essential pruning techniques”.

Camellias don’t really need pruning but this specimen had several shoots sticking up and the owner wanted them pruned. But only those shoots. So I hand snipped all of the shoots down to a bud. It was easy and it didn’t take much time. Power shearing would have been slightly faster but the shredding that occurs is unsightly. Hand snipping works perfectly in this case.

 

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The task was to remove the long top shoots which don’t sport any buds. I made the cuts down to the first bud I encountered.

 

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This is the after shot. The long shoots are gone and very few buds were lost in the operation. Any additional pruning will happen in spring, just before bud break.

 

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Camellia flowers are stunning and can be cut for home vases. You can see why owners would get upset over losing this kind of show.

 

Conclusion

Remember to pick-up plant-specific knowledge so not everything on your site or garden is power sheared at one time. Camellia japonica should be pruned in spring, just before bud break; if you must prune it.

Don’t be shy with Roses

By | Pruning, Species | No Comments

Let me start this blog post by saying that I’m not an expert on roses. I know how to snip them and I know it’s usually done in February. Of course, there many rose varieties and lots of exceptions but on my commercial site I didn’t worry.

When I took the site over there was a lot of work to catch up on before lawn care started in the spring. Weeds were overdue and I also gave the lawns a nice, sharp blade edge.

By far the ugliest aspect of this commercial landscape were the roses. Since it was still technically winter it was easy to see the tangled mess inside the individual rose bushes. This is what happens when you quickly power shear the roses, season after season. Eventually, without good hand-pruning, the dead brown canes accumulate. Obviously, power shearing is quick and convenient. But I had time…..I was in charge now.

Dead canes

 

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This is a tangled mess full of dead canes oak leaves.

 

You will note the many brown dead canes. The dead is pruned out first. Then we move on to ugly twisted canes that rub or touch the ground. This pruning requires faith. Trust in your own work. By spring you will be rewarded.

 

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That’s much better.

 

 

This is the look we should aim for with nice canes pointing outward without crossing or rubbing each other. It looks too harsh at first. Just wait for summer. The rose plants push their available resources into the remaining canes. So for now we wait for the buds to swell and pop.

 

Growth and buds

 

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It’s all green and we have lots of buds. It’s just a matter of time.

 

See, everything is cool. We have new growth and flower buds. Correctly missing is the useless dead wood.

Summer success

 

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Summer success! It almost makes you forget the harsh look from winter.

 

Take a look at the second picture again. The one that made you cringe because it looked too harsh. Except it wasn’t. I would call this summer success. I knew it would work out because I have done it before. So don’t be shy, have some fun with your roses next February 2018 and watch them go.

The roses require some summer maintenance as the flowers fade. You can clip off the spent rose buds but be careful. Always look for upcoming rose flowers. Keep those on unless you’re pruning for shape. It’s OK to lose some flowers when a long cane reaches into the road for example.