The Art, Science & Philosophy
of Thumb Pruning Roses
By Lynn Snetsinger
Consulting Rosarian

Frequently in early spring, you will see one line in the "Monthly Rose Care Column" that says, "Thumb Prune," but I have never seen thumb pruning explained. Fortunately, when I began working with Jeff Stage, one of our top rose exhibitors, he took the time to describe it to me in detail. I pass on to you now what he taught me.

First we need to define some terms. I have heard the terms pruning, sidebudding, disbudding, underpruning, fingerpruning and thumb pruning used interchangeably. As I will use them, they describe different actions you will perform on your rose bushes at different times during the growing season.

Pruning refers to the most serious cuts you make on your rose plants to reduce the height of the plant, get rid of damaged, unproductive or cross-growing canes and encourage new strong growth on the rose bush. Rose exhibitors usually prune once and hardest in winter and again, but not as hard, in late summer or early fall.

Disbudding (also called sidebudding) refers to the action you perform on a rose when you decide whether to let it grow as a single bloom or a spray. The rose bush has put out a stem which has grown the first central (or terminal) bud and usually two or more sidebuds around the terminal bud or farther down the stem. If you want the stem to produce one large single bloom, you will disbud (remove) the sidebuds with your fingers leaving only the terminal bud; if you want a spray, you will disbud the terminal bud leaving only the sidebuds. Disbudding is done as soon as you can get your fingers in there to remove unwanted buds in order to minimize the scarring.

Underpruning is a term I believe Bob Martin coined. It is the action you perform on the rose plant after it has "put on its full coat" and is covered from the top to the ground with foliage, usually in late spring or early summer. When you underprune, you remove lower foliage (from the ground up about one foot) and all damaged or unwanted foliage, you clear the center of the rose bush and make way for new basal canes.

Thumb pruning is performed on your rose bushes after they have been pruned and when they first start to put out new growth. You will be dealing primarily with budeyes, some that have just started to swell, some that have just begun to "push" (the stage just before the leaves unfurl), and some that have leafed out already. When you thumb prune,your rose bush you will be working with stems from 0"-5" long. At this stage, as the term implies, the growth is tender enough to be removed with your thumb.

Next I want to explain the philosophy behind thumb pruning. The goal of your rose bush is to survive, flower and make hips and seeds by any means necessary. This is why most canes will first put out several single "lead" budeyes. Shortly thereafter, each lead eye may be followed by one or more "backup" eyes that come from the same "socket." If something happens to the lead eye, the backup eyes are there to do its job. If something happens to the upper eyes, the plant will push eyes further down the stem. This is why the rose bush puts out sidebuds (in case something happens to the first bud or bloom). It is also why your plant puts out new basal canes. Its job is to survive.

Given unfriendly growing conditions, the rose bush has all of these backup systems to keep itself alive. If, however, conditions for growth are optimal, the plant may decide it's safe to expend all of its backup systems at once. It will put out eyes all the way down each cane; it will push the lead budeye and the backup eyes at the same time and it will push new basals. The bush doesn't care if the stems are short, thin, crowded or diseased. Quantity, not quality, matters to the plant. The more it puts out, the better its chances
of survival.

If all you care about is having as many blooms as possible on your rose bush, no matter what shape they're in, read no further. If, however, you want the best rose blooms possible, you will need to thumb prune. Jeff calls thumb pruning "playing God." You, not the plant, will make the decisions about how, where and how much the plant grows. You will significantly improve the circulation of your rose bush and reduce the amount of disease they can fall victim to when they are young and most susceptible. By contrast, when you underprune in late spring, you are going back after the plant has already grown and correcting the "mistakes" it has made. You are working with a confusion and tangle of mature stems and thorns that are not always easy or pleasant to work with.

When you thumb prune, you are removing growth when it's immature, easy to break off, and more importantly, easier to see and work with. If you want healthy rose bushes and good (even exhibition) blooms, at some point you will have to do the work of clearing the center and removing unwanted stems and lower foliage. It's just a lot easier to do this work in February than it is in May. March or April is a little late to begin thumb pruning, and you may have to remove some stems with your pruners instead of your thumb, but it's still easier now than it will be later.

No matter when you do it, you need to understand the mechanics of thumb pruning your rose bushes. First decide how many stems you want each cane to grow. Jeff limits each cane to the three stems in the best possible position, but he also has as many as a dozen or more canes on each of his newly pruned, mature bushes. If you have fewer canes or decide you want more, but smaller, blooms, you might decide to let four or five stems grow on each cane.

Next, determine where the sun is, as it sets, in your yard. Your rose blooms will grow toward the setting sun; if you want straight stems, you will select budeyes that are facing this direction (select eyes facing away from the sun and you will get stems that come up and then curve toward it). Sometimes this will mean that you allow the rose stems to grow across the center of the plant, but since you will significantly limit the number of stems that do this and you will make plenty of room for them, you need not worry about "breaking the rule."

Now sit yourself down on the ground. First remove budeyes that you know you don't want to grow. You do this by rubbing or breaking them off at the base with your thumb or nail (I wear old gloves with the thumb cut off for thumb pruning). You don't want to leave any budeyes that grow sideways or down, onto a sidewalk or into a wall. You don't want them to grow into another cane. If you're not sure where they're going to go, draw an imaginary line about 24" long in the direction that each budeye is facing -- this is where the stem will grow -- if the two lines intersect, the stems will cross or interfere with each other, so one of the budeyes will have to go. You will remove eyes facing the center of the plant, unless you have decided they have to grow across center to face the sun. If they are to cross center, be sure they are on the upper end of the cane. There's not enough room for them to grow properly down near the bottom of a cane if they will cross center.

Only allow one bud eye to grow from each "socket" of the rose bush. If you have two or three coming from one socket, thumb prune off all but the best one, in the best position. Usually, the lead budeye will be the most mature and grow into the straightest, but sometimes one of the less mature eyes will be growing straightest while the lead eye goes sideways. If this is the case, opt to keep the straightest, even if it is less mature. In any case, if you allow more than one eye in a socket to grow, the plant will "become confused," not knowing which stem to put its energy into. You will also want to discourage growth in the wrong direction from the bottom 12" of the cane. (Growth in a good position from the bottom of a cane up to 18" should be considered new basal growth that you will definitely want to keep.)

These decisions will eliminate about 50% of the budeyes you have growing at this point. But now, you have to decide which of the other 50% you want to keep. Sometimes the decisions are not easy. You want the budeyes you keep to be "in the best possible position." This means they will be facing the sun, free to grow without interference from other canes or obstacles, and well-spaced. If several budeyes on one cane are growing in a good direction, you might want to keep the one at the top, remove the next one down, and keep the third one down to prevent the foliage from getting crowded as the stems grow. If only one eye on a rose cane is facing in a good direction, keep it and remove those growing the wrong way, even if it means there's only one left. Frequently, in another week or so, this will encourage the rose bush to push another eye that was "latent" (not visible) farther down the cane in a better position than the ones you removed. Some plants, like St. Patrick, Silverado and Elizabeth Taylor seem to love to grow sideways instead of up. If this is the case, look for and keep only "up eyes" (those that point directly up toward the sky).  

You do not have to make all of these decisions at your first "sitting." Thumb pruning is not a procedure you complete once and then forget about. It's a process you will repeat perhaps three or more weeks in a row, because your plants will continue to grow in their own helter-skelter fashion. After you remove one lead eye, sometimes the backup eyes will grow or latent eyes farther down the cane (and more desirable in stem size) will push. Sometimes you will discover that stems you thought would grow straight will curve or become crowded or damaged. Sometimes a stem will set a bud on the end of a stem only 2" long and you'll have to cut to the next eye down the stem.

Often, later in the season, your rose bush will begin pushing new basal canes that you need to clear room for. In your subsequent sessions, you can deal with these new situations. So if you find that you cannot decide whether or not to remove a particular budeye on a rose bush the first or second time around, don't agonize over it; let it grow a little longer. At some point, the decision will become clear. With each session, the work becomes easier and, as an added benefit, you become more familiar with each of your plants (Jeff calls this "learning to read your plant"). You learn how it grows and where it grows the straightest stems; you see disease when it first starts so you can get a handle on it before it spreads.

Many rosarians view early spring as the time to "just sit back and watch the roses grow." Good rosarians view it as the time to "use what they know." They get out there, thumb prune and make the roses grow the way the rosarian wants them to grow.

More about pruning

And pruning miniature roses

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© Copyright 2001-2012 Lynn Snetsinger. All rights reserved.

Photos © Copyright by Kitty Belendez

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Last December 11, 2012
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