When good garden writers give bad pruning advice

Pruning image courtesy of Shutterstock
Pruning image courtesy of Shutterstock

Yes, ProfessorRoush has not blogged for quite some time.  January has frankly been dismal here in the Flint Hills, and I’ve been leery of planning the return of green and glorious landscapes lest I awaken the wrath of the Winter Gods and precipitate another late April snowstorm.

I was rudely roused, however, from my winter slumber on a recent morning when my local paper printed the January 29th column of the esteemed Washington Post garden columnist, Adrian Higgins. Higgins, normally a sensible and knowledgeable garden writer, titled that column Prune Rosebushes in Winter, a bland and partly inaccurate title that leads the reader—eventually—to  founder blindly on the shoals of poor rose advice.  Thankfully, Mr. Higgins rambled over the first half of the article, presumably filling column space, before he got to rose care; else the damage done to Washington’s roses could have been much worse.

In his last few paragraphs, Higgins opens the rose-related conversation by stating that “roses are inherently sickly, but the vigor of modern hybrids far outpaces their woes.”  Apparently, Higgins is only acquainted with the inbred, over-pampered, disease-susceptible Hybrid Teas and Floribundas of the 1960’s-90’s, a time when monstrosities such as ‘Tropicana’ and ‘Chrysler Imperial’ ruled the rose world, commercialized and hyped to the point of nausea.  He never mentions the hardier roses that our forefathers grew, nor the disease-resistant, sustainable rose shrubs created over the last two decades by breeding programs such as that of the late Professor Griffth Buck, or test programs such as the Earth-Kind® program of Texas A&M University.

Higgins doubles down on his rose ignorance by recommending the annual pruning of all roses to a “goblet of five or six canes…cut back to 18 inches,” making no exceptions for once-blooming Old Garden roses, nor for leaving many modern Hybrid Tea and Floribunda cultivars taller or bushier.  My local newspaper compounded the omission by also deleting the last two paragraphs of the original column, where Higgins briefly mentions pruning exceptions for  “utilitarian landscape roses” such as Knock Out and larger Ramblers.  I appreciate his  demeaning characterization of Knock Out, but his description of appropriate pruning for these ubiquitous blights will only perpetuate the attempts of home landscapers to turn these shrubs into  flowering topiary.

Adrian, you did well with your recommendations of pruning for once flowering shrubs, shade trees, and hydrangeas, but please, leave rose-pruning advice to those with a broader view of the rose world.  I retire now, left to cope with my resultant nightmares of hacked down ‘Madame Hardy’ and ‘Variegata di Bologna’, butchered in their prime in the refined neighborhoods of Washington D. C. because of a need to fill newspaper column inches.  Oh, the horror.


  1. Excellent Rant, Professor. I also cringe whenever well-meaning people take the “one size fits all” approach to pruning roses. I would only pick one very small nit with you: I have 3 hybrid teas, and compared to my David Austin, which is hyped as being practically impervious to everything but looking awesome, those hybrid teas are cast iron. Yes, they do get some blackspot, but keeping the area beneath the roses cleaned up of diseased foliage and putting down fresh mulch each spring knocks that back to almost nothing. The David Austin, on the other hand, gets blackspot like there’s no tomorrow and generally looks like hell. So ease up on the teas, please!

  2. DYI and the “one solution fits all problems” trend in gardening has all but ruined every garden in the country. Just like the native Nazis eschewing that only 12 native plants are all we should ever grow, your rose care expert is glancing past the fact that there are literally thousands of species, selections, cultivars, etc. of roses and each and every one of them responds differently to whatever happens to them.
    My experience with David Austin’s by the way, is that they are really variable in their vigor and you have to select the right ones. Same with teas but I generally don’t care for the form of tea roses – they look like parked cars decorated for a wedding.

  3. I have found David Austins to be much more rewarding than any hybrid tea I’ve ever seen and I prune them only minimally as they are clearly happier when allowed to get pretty tall. Most seem to think they’re climbers whether their label says so or not. I also prefer Old Garden roses to hybrid teas.

  4. Oh, whew, I thought it was me! I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the winter pruning of roses thing. And the whole rest of the article wasn’t really a bad treatise on pruning generally (if you ignore the rose advice)

    But of course the title is “Prune Rose Bushes in Winter.” Let’s hope it was lost in the Superbowl hype!

  5. No winter pruning for me as all the roses are varied under snow.
    Since hybrid teas have to be fussed with so much here in Wisconsin I plant those darn utilitarian landscape shrub roses some of unfortunately bloom all summer with no disease problems. Oh the horror of it all!

  6. I have given up on roses, except one Knockout and one Rugosa. The Japanese beetles and chafers did the others in. Sigh… (I live in snowy Michigan.)

  7. Professor, excuse the delay in getting back to you about my hybrid teas. The three that I have (and I’ve had one of them for nearly 20 years now) are ‘Fragrant Memory’, ‘Tiffany’ and ‘Cherry Parfait’. I did have a fourth for a long time, ‘Peace’, but it was in a spot with less than great soil, and it struggled long before finally giving up. But again, I’ve found that the way to combat blackspot is to keep any leaves cleaned up throughout the season, do a thorough cleanup of the area in late fall, and replace the mulch in spring. ( I neglected to mention that I also have a ‘Burgundy Iceberg’ that refuses to respond to this treatment and gets blackspot out the wazoo. Still better than my David Austin in every way). I don’t find that hybrid teas are any more work than most perennials. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

  8. Way to go slaying someone who is trying to promote the craft. I agree that ‘one size fits all’ explanations don’t always apply, but try getting your ramble printed and I’ll bet you’ll fall short. In my experience, no one is buying roses anymore because of all the work that needs to go into it. Knockouts, while being over rated, are the only rose that sells consistently and keep some interest going in a dying sector of the market. Reading this rant only reminded me why I don’t grow roses, its only for high brow elitist who enjoy belittling people with perceived wisdom.

    • Wow. I’m not any kind of an elitist and my roses scramble over a barn and an old tool shed and share the space with sumac and never get any maintenance and don’t need it.
      I think this site is intended for gardeners to share ideas, information and experiences (and wisdom) and I don’t hear anyone belittling anyone about roses here.
      Your refusal to grow roses because you think that people who do are high-brow elitists just makes you, um, well – a high-brow elitist!
      I do agree with you though that those knock-outs, while ubiquitous, are really hard to beat garden shrubs.

      • Die hard gardeners aren’t the audience Higgins is writing for, but for the masses who purchase a new rose every few years from a big box store after killing the others. His advice might not work for every rose or every gardener but is fine for his intended audience who probably aren’t growing roses that need to be pruned differently. Chances are, if you ask them what kind of rose they’re growing, they’ll respond, ” A pink one and a red one”.

        As far as appreciating “his demeaning characterization of Knock Outs” how condescending. If successfully growing a Knock Out rose becomes the motivator to create a garden, then more power to the masses. You completely missed the mark because you misinterpreted the article. It wasn’t for you or about your roses.

  9. Unfortunately, Higgins is not just writing for the expert (of which there are many in DC), but for the amateur and the ssp ‘Ignorant Amateur’. Many of those in the last two categories never venture past hybrid teas and feel that Austin roses are pretty damn exotic, so the chances that his generalized advice will work is pretty good. He does touch upon the landscapes and the ramblers (fairly common), but those of us who know what an EarthKind designation is are going to be disappointed by the depth of the article (or lack thereof). Perhaps if he’d saved roses for a completely different column (as the title suggested) more information could have been imparted.

    Pity the poor columnist with hands tied by editors – these days the more generalized the information, the more people one is theoretically supposed to reach – and that’s what sells papers. Leaves people like us out of the net, but then there are always books, journals and society quarterlies – and Higgins has a pleasing style (says this Mitchell lover).

    As for me…rugosas all the way baby! Apart from my ‘Hansa’ which snuffed it in a bad beetle year, I can’t get enough.

  10. And that thoughtful reply comes from Marianne, as far from a high brow elitist as you can get! Ask her about her Harry Lauder Walking Stick!

  11. I am totally not getting the disdain for Knockouts. Here on the South Carolina coast mine bloom without bugs or disease straight through from April to Christmas. We had a couple and warm days in January and some blooms popped out again!

    I also have some related Drift roses where the blooms literally cover most of the plant. Again all they want is some fertilizer every six weeks.

    Between Knockouts, Drifts and Encore Azaleas, I get an amazing show for all but about three months of the year.

    Long live Knockouts!

  12. Gary, I think there is some unwritten law out there that if something a) grows well, b) is easy for amateurs, and therefore, c) becomes over planted, we are required as experienced gardeners to hate it and make disparaging remarks. Hell, I can’t profess love for a Manhattan Euon these days without being in danger of having my serious gardener license revoked.

    In some ways I understand – I spent enough time in Southern California to become sick to death with Agapanthus – but out here in frigid-ville, it is rare to find one flourishing. Result: everyone wants one. Someday when my zone has popped up two zones to 9 and everyone grows them, I have no doubt that noses will go up 2 points in response. Human nature I guess, but it always makes me giggle.

    However, it’s not a good idea to “blanket hate” a plant. There are horrendous uses of the Knock Out and Drift series, but one or two skillfully added to a border can bridge the seasons.

  13. Sorry, I will still proclaim here that I don’t find roses to be any more trouble than most perennials. You cut back the winter kill, feed them a few times during the season, cut them back in fall. Lots of perennials get varying degrees of insect damage or disease during the season, but you don’t push the panic button. It’s not that difficult, people.

  14. As an occasional reader of Adrian Higgins, and his periodic chats on the WaPo website…I seem to think that he is not very high on roses in the first place, especially in the DC area with the concommittent high humidity which causes a lot of the rose diseases in the first place. Much better to plant some appropriate under-appreciate natives that are at least as colorful, and more sturdy, than roses.

    I do reserve the right to be wrong about what I think his opinion is, of course. 🙂

    • I can’t think of any natives that are more colorful than billowing arbors and cascades of lovely old-world roses… Very few native shrubs have the same abundant habit or profusion of flower as a good rose. It would be a shame to allow a lack of knowledge about this huge and diverse group of plants to limit the potential of any garden. This is a kind of dumbing down of the garden which yields more ubiquitous plants like ‘knock-outs’.
      Roses have been grown ornamentally almost as long as dogs and cats have eaten from human hands – they are part of a long gardening legacy and are evocative of the romance of the garden like no other thing.
      You might not care for the beguiling abundance of an English cottage garden with globes of boxwood and spires of foxglove and drifts of daisies and arching canes of lush roses in full glorious bloom – but you can’t deny that this prototype is still the standard in which all modern Western garden design is rooted and it is a style that gets revisited and revised about every generation.
      Roses are to the garden what the Beatles are to popular music – a jumping off place.
      Learning more about roses and which ones do which things is probably a better idea than dismissing them wholly because some are duds!

  15. It’s too bad he didn’t use some of that column space to instruct gardeners on the sorts of roses they may be able to grow in their area with little maintenance. That list in NC for example goes far beyond Knockouts and includes rugosas, teas, Chinas, native species roses and several excellent climbers. I treat them just like any other woody plant, which means they just get compost and dead wood trimmed away. They are never sprayed or pampered.

  16. There is a bright red shrub rose that’s planted in a median at a local supermarket. A dry, desert, poorly watered median at that. The rose is killer! I fully intend to take cuttings as soon as it’s warm. I have no idea exactly which variety it is, but I do know it would fit into my landscape, which is also dry and has limited water.
    I find it best to prune as circumstances dictate from year to year after observing the harsh weather of the past 10 years.

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