Caring for Roses Part 1: Pests & Pruning

What’s not to love about roses?  Okay, other than the thorns.  At our peak, the Old Man and I have had over 30 rose plants of various forms in our yard.  We just ripped out a few, but it’s okay, we’re expecting four more to be delivered soon.  We don’t have a problem (twitch twitch).

roses on fence 2

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Caring for these babies is relatively easy, especially if you know what to do and how to do it.  The biggest hurdle is avoiding those lovely thorns!  During much of the year, roses do pretty well just being left alone.  Most of your time investment will come during the winter pruning.  There are a few problems that roses can encounter, and you may just have to reevaluate whether the care a particular variety requires is worth your time.



Aphids go after many types of plants, but luckily ladybugs go after many types of aphids!


The worst pests I deal with are aphids and leaf-cutter bees.  Removing sap-sucking aphids can be done with a variety of methods that are gentle to your plant and your yard.  Encouraging critters like lady bugs and green lace wings to come in will help to keep them in check, but you can also use treatments like insecticidal soap or neem oil.  Even a quick blast with a hose will knock the aphids off.  White flies can cause the same problems as aphids, but can be treated in the exact same way.


This image from the Queensland Museum shows the damage a leaf-cutting bee can cause.


Leaf-cutter bees are just an annoyance, but I don’t do anything to chase them off.  They cut nearly perfect circles from the edges of the leaves of my roses.  These leaf chunks are used for lining their nests.  The bees themselves are important pollinators, so I just suck it up and deal with funky looking leaves.


Perhaps the worst problem some varieties of roses deal with is black-spot.  This is caused by a fungus, and will usually show up once the weather begins to warm.  The fungus causes the leaves to develop black spots (hence the name), and then eventually yellow and finally fall off of the plant.  The disease doesn’t kill the rose right off, but weakens it and over time may cause the rose to die.

black spot

This image from the Missouri Botanical Garden shows Black Spot fungal disease in progress.  The leaves will eventually yellow and then drop, leaving nothing but stems behind.


There are a few things that can be done to minimize the damage and treat the disease.  The biggest thing is to try to keep water off the leaves.  Make sure any sprinklers are not directly hitting the plant.  Remove any dropped leaves from around the plant as they may harbor spores that can get onto fresh leaves.  Don’t put them in your compost, either!  Leaves that are showing signs of infection can be treated organically with a copper fungicidal spray which are usually easy to find at your local nursery or hardware store.

The way you plant and prune your roses can also help.  Try not to plant your roses too close together as they will spread the spores more easily if they are near each other.  Also, crowded roses and unpruned roses will have less air flow, and that creates the perfect breeding ground for the fungus.

In the end, your best bet may just be to plant varieties that are resistant to black spot.  After years of fighting, I have resigned myself to the fact that the best strategy is to remove plants that are more susceptible and replace them with varieties that aren’t.  The diseased roses would start off each spring looking fine and would even put out blooms, but before long they would be reduced to sticks as the leaves all dropped.


Don’t be nervous about pruning your roses.  You would have to work really hard to kill them.  In fact, you are better erring on the side of over pruning than under pruning.  Before you start, though, invest in a good pair of thick gloves and put on heavy pants and a sturdy long sleeve shirt!  Have a good, sharp set of hand-trimmers and you may even need a long-handled pair of loppers for really thick canes.


If the leaves are still clinging to your roses at pruning time, it will be easier to knock them down to better see where to prune.  I like to use the nozzle from my watering can, rather than my arm!


The benefit of pruning your roses is that it helps reduce the risks of diseases like black spot.  Pruning also helps to stimulate new growth which is where you will get your blooms from.  You will want to do your pruning in late winter/early spring after the old leaves have mostly or completely dropped and before new ones come in.

When pruning typical shrub roses, your goal is to trim down to your main canes (branches) that are coming from the base and to trim them down to roughly 1-2 feet in height.  You want to remove any criss-crossed stems because those will be the ones that block air flow once the leaves are growing again.


These roses will grow back big and strong during the season despite their hard pruning.


Ground cover roses and some types of shrub roses grow with a multitude of smaller branches and therefore don’t have the same kind of main canes.  The same approach can be used to trim these roses, though you don’t need to be quite as severe.  Instead, some thinning of the branches may be all that’s needed to reduce disease risks.

Climbing roses need the least trimming, so instead focus on cutting branches that are growing in directions that you don’t want them to be.  Every few years you will want to go through and thin out some of the growth to help spur new branches which will give you more blooms.


This is the practice of removing blooms after they are spent.  This tricks the rose into thinking that it wasn’t successful in making seeds and so the plant will want to bloom again in order to try to reproduce.  Dead-heading also saves some of the plant’s energy because it is not using it on seed production.


The downside to dead-heading of roses is that you will not get any of the hips (seed pods).  Rose hips are very pretty in shades of deep red to orange and can also be eaten like fruit.  Birds like them, too.  The best compromise if you want those hips is to stop dead-heading toward the end of summer and allow some of the blooms to go to seed.  This will give you a nice stretch of bloom time, and then you’ll get the hips to enjoy in the fall and winter.




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