Is it all right to prune rose bushes in the fall? How far back? And what about the completely dead stalks?

— Suzanne

To answer your question, let me give you a brief primer on fall rose care.

It's important to understand how to get roses ready for winter. Doing things improperly can sometimes cause damage to the plant.

First, you need to understand that roses don't know when to stop for the year; they want to keep growing and growing and growing. This characteristic goes back to some of the parentage of today's modern hybrid roses.

The very desirable trait of re-blooming throughout the summer comes from a couple of rose species that are tropical or subtropical. They can grow all year because of the climate, so they don't have a built-in switch that shuts off growth as days shorten and it gets colder.

That late season growth is sort of nice because the plant continues to bloom and look pretty good while everything around it is losing leaves, but that can lead to trouble when the plant is frozen back severely with an early frost.

The first thing we want to do is to maintain the plant in such a way as to slow it down in the fall and start thinking about going into dormancy.

This boils down to a list of "thou shalt nots."

First, thou shalt not continue to water your roses frequently during the fall. People tend to water into the fall the same way they watered during the summer. Of course, the plant needs water, it's just a matter of stretching out the time between soakings to encourage the plant to slow down.

Second, thou shalt not fertilize your roses in the fall. Fertilizer generally stimulates growth and you really don't want that. I don't like to fertilize roses after the first of August.

Third, thou shalt not prune your roses in the fall (at least too early in the fall). Pruning is a natural growth stimulant. The plant will sprout new growth to replace what was cut off. We don't want new growth in the fall, so I stop deadheading my plants the first half of August and let them go the rest of the fall.

Adhering to these commandments will help prepare your plant for the coming cold weather.

Once the ground has frozen in late November or early December, you can think about mulching your plants. Don't mulch them too early. All you'll do is hold in the relatively warm soil temperatures and keep the plant actively growing later than it should.

Let the ground freeze first and then put down the mulch. Frozen ground won't hurt the plant, we just want to protect it from the really cold temperatures we'll have in January and February.

Use a coarse, fluffy material to mulch roses. Chopped leaves, straw, wood chips or red cedar mulch will do a good job.

Pile it in a cone shape around the base of the plant. The cone should be about 12 inches tall or so. This will protect the graft union so that if we get a really cold winter, the graft will still be alive, even if it kills back the exposed canes, and you can easily rebuild the plant next spring.

If the weather has been dry, I think it is a good idea to water the soil well around the plant before putting down the mulch. Next spring in late March, gently pull the mulch away from the plant and spread it out around the plant to keep down weeds and hold water.

Occasionally, it's a good idea to cut roses back a bit in the fall. I'll recommend this if a plant is especially tall and lanky. In that case, wait until the ground is frozen and you're ready to mulch, and cut back then.

I won't do the standard rose pruning but a quick "crew cut" to 3 feet or  4 feet tall. This will help the plant look better over the winter and will reduce the chance of snow building up on the end and breaking the entire cane.

You shouldn't have to do this fall pruning if you've been pruning properly every spring.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506, or email info@bookcliffgardens.com.

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