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Scratched Hands + Dead Heads = Beautiful Roses!

Scratched Hands + Dead Heads = Beautiful Roses!

Fri, June 28, 2019 by Lucy Contreras, Horticulturist and Rosarian | in Botanical Gardens

If there’s one thing I often hear from my fellow horticulturists it’s how much they hate roses. The complaint is usually the same: the thorns! Well, prickles technically, but I know what they mean. I think their hatred is a bit misguided, (c’mon, a shrub that has such diversity in its flower form and shape, color, fragrance – someone stop me, I could go on!). Now sure, if you grow roses, you’re going to end up with a few cuts, but don’t let that deter you.

Since I have better dexterity without gloves, I do most of my rose tasks barehanded. It’s heresy I know, and I can’t help but feel like I’m inadvertently offering the roses a blood sacrifice in exchange for their beauty. That being said, you can certainly wear gloves and have beautiful roses too, so don’t think rose growing has to be a complete blood sport! One of the key tasks in my rose care regimen is deadheading. Jeez, this is sounding dark.

So, what is deadheading? Don’t worry, this isn’t the stuff that zombie movies are made of or a Grateful Dead reference. Deadheading is simply removing spent or finished flowers. It often encourages additional flowering while cleaning up the look of the overall plant. Between our addition of about 80 new roses this year, and with how happy all the roses have been, we have been very busy deadheading. I’m certainly not complaining!

Some people see me deadheading and do a double take. Why is this fiend cutting what appears to be a perfectly fine rose off the shrub? I go in with a more critical eye, so once the flower looks a little less than its best, like the one pictured above, I remove it. By doing this, I am encouraging a new, fresh flower to come up and take the old one’s place. My only exception is for roses that only flower once. I generally give them a stay of execution and let them go until all of their petals drop.

The actual act of deadheading is simple. To start, you grab your bypass pruners and examine the plant. I like to cut my rose down to an outward facing bud, or a bud that will be growing away from the center of the plant. This helps to reduce clutter and increase air flow within the center of the rose. The bud on a rose can be found beneath where the leaf attaches to the stem, so let the leaves be your guide. If the stem is defoliated, look for a subtle protrusion on the stem (not a prickle) and that is your bud. A new stem will grow from that bud point, so, as we said, be sure to see what direction or side of the stem it’s on, so you have an idea of how it will grow.

Things can feel a little complicated when you have a rose that expresses its flowers in a cluster. Don’t worry – this is easy! If one flower of the cluster is done, just cut it back to the point where it is coming out of the cluster. If the majority of the cluster is spent, you may want to consider removing the whole cluster instead of painstakingly removing each individual spent flower. Just like before, cut down to an outward facing bud.

You may be asking yourself if you need to deadhead. This isn’t a simple yes or no answer, but more of an “it depends.” Your plant won’t die if you decide not to deadhead, and for some people, that’s enough to decide deadheading is not for them. As we described earlier, deadheading has its benefits like encouraging more flowers and tidying up the shrub. Looking for another reason to deadhead? It’s a great excuse to spend some time in the garden!

The Knock Out line of roses are well known for being low care roses and ones you do not need to deadhead, as they will self clean, or drop old flowers on their own. Depending on how patient you are, you may decide you want to clean up the plant before it’s ready to drop its spent flowers. At Brookgreen, we deadhead our Knock Outs.

While deadheading is a great habit to get into, it’s also good to know when to stop. I usually call it quits about a month before our anticipated frost date. This allows ample time for the roses to harden off, or prepare for winter. We want the roses to stop sending up new flowers, as they are also producing tender new growth that is at risk of getting damaged by the frost. Even though the roses are getting ready to rest, it doesn’t mean they lose all ornamental features. Some roses have beautifully colored red or orange hips that add an extra point of interest to the winter landscape while also acting as a food source for birds. The image below shows new hips that haven’t reached their peak ornamental value yet.

I could go on and on about roses if you let me... and as it turns out, Brookgreen is letting me! If you want to learn more about rose basics, make sure to stop by Brookgreen on July 9th at noon for Dirt N’ Details, our monthly horticulture lecture series. Also, be sure to check out our website to see what other Dirt N’ Details topics we have coming up in future months!

See you in the gardens!


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Off US Highway 17 Bypass, between Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island