Jour. Roy. Hort. Soc. 11: 165-174 (1889)

By the Rev. A. Foster-Melliar


In treating of the subject of pruning of roses, one is met at the outset by the question: Why is pruning necessary at all? Why should not our rose-trees grow as fine and large as they will? The answer is to be found in the manner of the natural growth of the rose. By watching an unpruned rose-tree, either wild or cultivated, it will be found that the first strong shoot flowers well the following season, but gets weaker at the extremity in a year or two, and another strong shoot starts considerably lower down, or even from the very base of the plant, and this soon absorbs the majority of the sap, and will eventually starve the original shoot, and be itself thus starved in succession by another. A rose in a natural state has thus every year some branches which are becoming weakened by the fresh young shoots growing out below them. And this is one of the first reasons why pruning is necessary. A rose is not a tree to grow onwards and upwards, and as standards seem to be going out of fashion, and so many varieties are dwarf in their growth, it seems better to speak of rose-plants than of rose-trees.

Objects in view.

The objects of pruning are:—To maintain the life and strength of the plants, to mould and preserve their shape, and to give more vigour, colour, and substance to the flowers. Owing to the natural habit of growth before mentioned, a considerable amount of wood must be taken away annually to prevent the shoots robbing each other, and, when nature is thus once interfered with, art must step in to make and to keep a plant of well-balanced shape. And further, even for ordinary garden purposes, a considerable amount of strength and sap must be reserved for each bloom, or, in the case of the dark H.Ps., they will not show their true colours at all.

Why the Art has declined. The principal art of pruning—that of forming and maintaining a shapely plant of well-placed shoots—has very much declined of late years, owing to (1) the decadence of really strong-growing varieties, (2) the waning popularity of standards, where a well-balanced head is more noticeable and necessary than in a dwarf or bush plant, and (3) the fact that most enthusiastic rosarians are also exhibitors, and therefore care more for fine perfect blooms than for well-shaped plants. When I first learnt to prune, upwards of thirty years ago, H.Ps. were something new, and there were still a great many large standards of summer roses, each of which was a study in itself for the pruner's art.


First, then, as to the instruments. A pruner of the old school would condemn the use of scissors, be horrified to see a shoot cut off square, and would consider the neat, smooth, sloping cut of a sharp knife to be the only legitimate appearance, and he would also perhaps scorn the use of gloves and think he could do his work better without them. This last point must be a matter of taste, but it is useless to deny that roses have thorns, which are especially hard and sharp at pruning time; and it is well to remember that in using a knife, especially with budded roses of one year's growth, the plant must be firmly held with the left hand, or a serious breakage is very apt to occur.

Two good knives, an oilstone, a regular pair of pruning scissors, and a kneeling mat for dwarfs, will probably prove a sufficient equipment. One of the knives should have a strong blade, the other a narrower and smaller one. The hone should be carried about, and not left behind, or the tearing off of a valuable branch will soon be the result of a blunted blade. The scissors will be useful for very small shoots, and sometimes for very large ones, and especially handy for bits of dead wood in awkward positions; in the two last cases the cuts should afterwards be trimmed and smoothed with a knife. For kneeling on the cold wet soil I have found a piece of waterproof about 18 inches square more satisfactory and less tiring than kneecaps; and remember that the weight of the body will bring moisture through any alleged waterproof that has not an actual skin of india-rubber.

The Season of the Year.

Next as to the time of year. Some recommend a certain amount of thinning in early autumn, to ensure the ripening of the remaining shoots; but this may sometimes have the effect of causing low dormant buds to push, which is undesirable; it certainly lessens the number of our autumn blooms, probably checks the root-power, and the benefit gained does not seem to be large.

We may commence with roses trained on south walls about the middle of February, and the pruning of H.Ps. and summer roses begins in earnest with the following month. March will not be found too long for the cultivator who has a large amount of H.Ps. under his care; for there are generally many days in that "month of many weathers" when nothing but real enthusiasm will maintain the requisite amount of patience in the rosarian's breast, kneeling on the chilly soil over his dwarfs day by day, and exposed to the pitiless east wind. It is best to leave Tea roses in the open undisturbed till April; a reckless primer in the shape of Jack Frost has generally been before us, and often we are grateful enough if he has left us any life to prune back to.

The Method.

Now as to the actual modus operandi. It must first be asked, Do we require handsome plants for general decoration with fair blooms for cutting, or are we pruning for exhibition?

We will take the former case first as the most complicated. The first care will be to cut out all dead wood, and all wood, however thick and old, which, as shown by the small growth made last season, is becoming weakly in comparison with other stronger shoots. Now we can study the plant, and see what we have got left. Our object is to form a well-shaped head or plant; and by "well-shaped" I mean that the plant itself should be of the even globular form of a rose. Rose-petals are evenly arranged, and none cross each other in an inward direction; such should be the shape of the plant. Bearing in mind that the top bud left of each shoot will grow first, and in the direction in which it points, we should always cut back to a bud that looks outwards, and take care that the centre will not be too crowded. If we want to get rid of a misplaced shoot, it should be cut right out at the bottom; merely cutting it back will only make it grow the more. It must be our endeavour, each year, to do away with as much old wood as possible, especially in the middle of the plant, and, in the case of strong growers, we must harden our hearts and thin the number of shoots remorselessly. We should picture to ourselves what the plant will look like in full growth, and remember that a lover of roses is more likely to leave too many than too few shoots. There is a saying in East Anglia, "No man should hoe his own turnips," meaning that he is not likely to thin them sufficiently, but those who are used to thinning grapes and other garden produce will probably have got over this difficulty.

The Golden Rule.

The next question is, how many buds are to be kept on each shoot retained; and the answer is to be found in the golden rule of pruning, that more buds are to be left on each shoot in proportion as the plant, both as a variety and an individual, is strong, and less in proportion as it is weak.

To a novice in rose-growing it appears strange at first that we should cut away almost all there is left of a weakly-growing and precious variety, which would seem to be almost exterminated by such severity, and yet leave longer shoots on a strong sort, which seems better able to stand the rough treatment; but the rule is, nevertheless, in strict accordance with the law of Nature—Darwin's survival of the fittest; and the law of God—"Whosoever hath, to him shall be given." It is of widespread application. In education, for instance, it is beginning to be found out that it is wiser to add to the knowledge a child possesses, and to concentrate all teaching on the one branch for which an aptitude is displayed, than to introduce a variety of fresh subjects. But I must stick to roses; and we shall find the same rule apply in other branches of cultivation besides pruning. If we were to give directions to an ordinary labourer to apply liquid manure to the plants, we should very likely find him choosing the weakly ones as recipients of stimulant and nourishment, and omitting the strong, on the plea that they did not want it. That would be a mistake: it is the healthy and strong who want it, because they can use it. The weak cannot; the nourishment they have is more than they can manage. Again, every rosarian finds that some varieties of roses do well with him, and some do badly. The first idea is to grow less of the sorts of which we have plenty of good ones, and more of those which have not been so successful. And an exhibitor must do this to a certain extent, but it is a pity; it is doing that which we should always endeavour to avoid, viz. fighting against Nature, instead of directing, and even diverting, and yet siding with her. To get the greatest number of most beautiful roses we should grow those sorts only which we find to do well.

The rule as to the number of buds to be left on each shoot therefore is: In proportion as a plant is strong in growth, either from the natural habit of the variety, or, in a less degree, from the actual condition of the individual, leave more buds on each shoot; because the strong grower has a capability of supplying several buds on each shoot with a sufficiency of sap for good blooms; and, if a due number be not allowed, the shoots will either not flower at all, or produce coarse and ill-shaped blooms. And, in proportion as a plant is weakly in growth, fewer buds should be left; because the weak grower has only sufficient strength to supply sap to one or two buds on each shoot; and if more are left, the power will not be sufficiently concentrated to form good blooms. The general habit of the variety should therefore be well borne in mind in determining how many buds to leave on each shoot; remembering always, with a view to the summer outline of the plant, to prune to an out-looking bud; and that, as a general rule, the more a shoot is cut back, the longer will be the growth from the bud left at the top.

Method continued.

After a warm summer, most of the young wood on a well-pruned and healthy plant will be moderately ripe; but we occasionally find an extra well-ripened shoot, almost as firm and brown as the old wood, with large buds ready to start at the first chance. This is very valuable, and plenty of space should be allowed for its development, less ripe shoots being removed to make room for it. On the other hand, we often find gross, strong, but late, unripened shoots, much thicker, but greener, with a much larger proportion of pith. These are comparatively useless, and should generally be cleanly and carefully removed. If any shoot, by its unusual size, evidently absorbs a large proportion of the sap of the plant, it should be, according to its ripeness and the condition of the rest of the plant, either removed altogether, or left a good length, other shoots being cut out to make way for it.

A good deal may be done to remedy faults and defects by a careful examination of each plant in early May, when a further thinning of the young shoots may be practised, if necessary. Of those growing too close together, or filling up the centre, one or two may be rubbed off. But we must not be rash; if undecided, it may be prudent to postpone the examination for a week or so, when we can still rub the shoot off, but cannot put it back.

If a plant is carefully pruned from the beginning, it seldom presents many difficulties, as long as it continues in health; but those which have been neglected for only one year, often require to be cut back sufficiently to form an entirely new framework during the following season.

For bedding purposes, the pegging-down system is fairly successful with really strong-growing varieties, of not too stiff habit. All must be cut away save two or three (not too many) of the strongest shoots, which are bent down and pegged over the bed. They will break and bloom all over, and in late summer other shoots will probably spring from the base, which will take the places of the old ones, if necessary, in the following spring.

Standards of the Gloire de Dijon race may be trained to form umbrella-shaped or weeping roses, on a similar system.

Pruning for Exhibition.

Pruning for exhibition is a different matter altogether; our object in this case is to get the finest possible blooms, and the exhibitor will not generally care a fig about the shape of his plants, so long as he has better roses to cut than his rivals. If number is required, the plants must be multiplied, as but few blooms must be expected from each.

Pruning in this case loses most of its art: almost all, and, in some cases where there is not sufficient ripeness, all the new wood will be simply cut away, and the resulting shoots thinned as soon as separable, according to the habit of the variety. Exception must be made in the case of some of the strongest-growing H.Ps., which will bloom but sparsely and too late, if they are cut back too far; and of certain varieties, which are apt to bear coarse flowers, but this can sometimes be remedied by a discretion in thinning the flower buds.

Tea Roses.

We now come to the pruning of Tea Roses in the open. Roses of this class, if well fed, and spared by the frost (of which latter contingency I have but little knowledge), might be pruned but little; and, in a rich soil, in a district of mild winters, or where protected by glass, I imagine a mere removal of dead and weak wood, and of budless tips, would suffice for these charming plants. But in many parts of the country, particularly in low-lying districts, we often find, in spite of our best efforts at protection, that the greater part of each plant has been killed or severely injured during the winter; and are only thankful, as I have said, if we can find some real life to cut back to.

For exhibition purposes, the pure Tea Roses should in all cases be pruned back as hard as the H.Ps.; there is no fear of these free flowering roses failing to bloom. But the now large Gloire de Dijon race, Maréchal Niel, and the Noisette hybrids must be treated differently; the long strong shoots of the year reserved to nearly their full length, and the old and weak wood only cut out.

Maréchal Niel under Glass.

I must pass over the pruning and training of pot roses and roses for forcing, as subject to the same general rules; but Maréchal Niel under glass seems to do best under the following special treatment. In a house fitted with wires up the roof, let a strong young standard be planted as a vine, with plenty of room for extension on either side. Prune it completely back in the winter, and select two shoots only, training them horizontally right and left immediately under the bottoms of the wires. If still growing when they reach the end of the house, or as far as the rose is intended to cover, train each up the end wire, and, if they reach the top, stop them as you would a vine.

No pruning whatever will be required the following winter, but the plant must be always highly fed. The rose will probably bloom freely along the rods in the spring, and, as soon as this is over, the upright rods (if any) must be cut right back to the horizontal part, and an endeavour made to train a shoot up each wire, all other buds and new shoots being clean removed. The chosen shoots may appear weak at first, but they will gain in strength, and the autumn growth, if the plant be healthy and well nourished, will be very rapid. Probably all the shoots will not reach the top of the house this year; but let them grow as much as they will, stopping them when they do reach the top. Early in the following spring—dependent, of course, upon the amount of heat supplied—a bloom will appear at almost every bud, and, when the crop of flowers is over, probably about the end of April, every upright rod must be cut clean away again down to the horizontal branches, and during the summer fresh shoots trained up in their room, and stopped as before on reaching the top of the house. It is best to do this cutting away of the upright rods gradually, during a week or so, and not all on one day, because we thus lessen the severity of the check to the plant.

This is a simple, systematic, and regular method, which I have found to answer extremely well.


With this I must conclude—pruning is a most essential part of our art, which must be patiently and thoroughly carried out at an inclement time of year, when beautiful roses seem but a dream of the future; but the ardent rosarian will at all times have the present season in view as the harvest and reward of his labours, and will work zealously all the year round, in cold and heat, rain and drought, frost and snow, shadow and shine, in behalf of the motto of our craft,

"Floreat Regina Florum."


The PRESIDENT said he had seen gardeners prune their grape vines till tears came into his eyes. When he was a young rosarian he pruned a Blairii No. 2, and the consequence was that he got no bloom for a good many years. They must cut roses according to their state. He was very glad that the system of pegging-down had been mentioned, because he thought it was a beautiful system which few rosarians adopted. He did not know anything much more beautiful than a well-to-do bed of pegged-down roses. Here and there they might diversify the monotony of the surface by putting in short standards, or still higher standards might be put in, which would give a beautiful mass of roses. Very strong-growing roses must be selected. People were very much afraid of transplanting, but it was a great mistake to be afraid, and he had some roses which benefited very much from transplanting. When he went to Rochester he found some roses that were not fit to be seen. He said they must be burned, but someone said they might be put where they could not be seen. They were moved, and were now ten times better than they ever were. Mr. Foster-Melliar spoke about his Teas being seriously injured and destroyed by the severity of the winter. He was one of the first to grow Teas in large quantities out-of-doors, and he never lost any. The briar in all its shapes was the best stock as a rule for English roses.

Mr. BERTRAM asked what Mr. Foster-Melliar's experience had been with regard to the pruning of Maréchal Niels out-of-doors. It was, he thought, a most important question.

Mr. FOSTER-MELLIAR said he had mentioned that Maréchal Niel and Gloire de Dijon should have the shoots of the year before as long as possible, with the old weak wood cut out. All his own Maréchal Niels were effectually pruned, but they went through a 32° of frost, and there was an end of them. In answer to the President, he would say that all his Tea roses, of which he grew over 1,000 dwarfs, were all earthed-up like potatoes at the commencement of every winter, about a foot deep. He did not think there could possibly be a better protection from the frost; but, in spite of all that, a great many of them were killed. He lived in a very low situation, a circumstance very much opposed to the satisfactory growing of roses, Tea roses especially, and therefore, like an Englishman, it was the only flower he tried to grow.

The CHAIRMAN said a great risk was of course run in growing them out-of-doors; but if a Maréchal Niel was obtained out-of-doors in its integrity, they would get it in its fullest grandeur.

Mr. G. BUNYARD asked for some experience with regard to De la Grifferaie as a stock. He mentioned that he had some Tea roses which went through some winters very well, but which were killed by the winter of 1880, and he had given it up in despair. He instanced this because others might be on the same track, and it might save them some little trouble.

Mr. G. PAUL said the fault of De la Grifferaie was that it was one of the very earliest, and making roses start too soon was not an advantage. It adapted itself to the Gloire de Dijon. It was also used very largely for dwarf Teas, and for the Gloire de Dijon it was a very useful stock.