Secrets of Deadheading Roses
By Frances G. Balletine

From The Charleston Rose, June/July 1999

This article explores alternative ways of deadheading roses and conserving precious foliage on our rose bushes.

One of the best-kept secrets in rosedom concerns deadheading roses. The exhibitors have known about it for years and years, but it hasn't been reported in the rose press--until recently.

I should have picked up on this secret years ago as I toured exhibitors' gardens and asked questions about this or that. I saw it, understood it, and yet my head never got the message. And I have certainly followed the party line as it concerns deadheading roses.

Back to basics

The anatomy of the rose is presented here. We are advised to "deadhead" regularly--that is, to remove the spent blossoms just above the first five leaflet leaf. Occasionally we find a reference that advises removing the spent blossoms at a three leaflet leaf after the first spring flush, the reason being to conserve foliage needed by the plant for photosynthesis.

Exceptions noted

From the Rose Press

Nothing in the rose literature pointed to changing from the traditional "make a slanting cut 1/4 inch above an outward five leaf set". Nothing until Sean McCann's feature "There is a Rose for Everyone," American Rose, May 1999 which proclaimed: "When you are deadheading your roses, do you cut down to the first set of five leaflets? The current advice from experimental gardens in the RNRS (Royal National Rose Society) headquarters at St. Albans is to nip off the dead flower just at the neck. That will promote immediate growth and a quicker return to flowering. The only sufferers in this will be the exhibitors who will go their own way anyway. After all, if you can't believe yourself, who can you believe?"

Robbie Tucker, well-known hybridizer, exhibitor, and editor from Nashville, TN, shared "a simple little rose growing tidbit that might pay you big dividends this year". (From an article published in the South Carolina Rose Society News Letter, and taken from the Carolina District website, http://www.members.aol.com/DocFile1/page13.html) Robbie reported " a late freeze had killed or permanently damaged many rose bushes after a rather early spring in 1998. Most hybrid teas had to be pruned back to the bud unions.

Four to six weeks later, the roses were recovering nicely when THE HAIL CAME.. One full inch covered the entire ground and beat the "ever-loving heck" out of the tender new growth on our bushes...

"The consensus seemed to write off the spring rose show season and concentrate on getting our bushes healthy for the fall... No roses were cut through July. All blooms were snapped off at the peduncle when the cycle was complete, leaving the maximum amount of foliage remaining on the plant. This foliage was very important for maximum photosynthesis to take place. By July, the bushes were almost as large as they were the preceding year...

"So what's the point? ... I can tell you that this spring I don't intend to cut spent blooms back to the first five-leaflet leaf like many of us were taught. Instead, I will wait for blooms to complete their cycle and will then pinch/snap only the bloom head off, leaving the maximum amount of foliage on my plant. By July, my bushes should be well on their way to achieving their full potential, allowing me to deadhead more conventionally.

"Just remember that the healthiest bushes will produce the most blooms through summer and fall and go into next winter with the best chance for survival."

" Leave as much foliage as possible on your spring rose bushes and you should see big dividends."

Questioning Traditional Practices

Is it time to question the traditional way of deadheading roses? Perhaps! I knew it was time for me to consult with my Consultant Rosarian, Dr. Satish Prabhu, whose advice and thoughts on difficult subjects have guided my thinking over the years.

From Dr. Satish Prabhu--Thoughts on Deadheading Roses

"Long before I ever became a member of ARS and had the opportunity to read all the nice literature, particularly on how to prune back to the first five leaflet leaf after blooming, I used to remove only the spent blooms for several reasons:

"Later, when I became a member of ARS, I read Howard Walters' advice in the American Rose magazine: "Grow good foliage and good roses will follow." and Dr. John Dickman's: "All the fertilizers in the soil won't do any good without a full complement of foliage because it is only through photosynthesis that the bushes can manufacture food."

"When my garden in Columbia became too large for me to do a meticulous job of thinning out the crowded centers and cutting back to five leaflets, I practiced this on a few select bushes but the rest of the garden received the "just remove the flower" treatment. Again, the plants that were treated the latter way produced more basal breaks faster.

"I tried to share this observation with my rosarian friends, but before my exhibiting days, this information was largely ignored.

"Another observation I have made is that when I prune for fall shows, the winning entries come more often than not on new growth that starts somewhere lower on the bush than where the canes were pruned. This further bolstered my observation that pruning to a five leaflet leaf is entirely unnecessary.

"What about the clearing of centers and removing blind shoots so as to allow the spray material to reach all the foliage?" With the modem sprayers, this is rarely a problem. I do have several large bushes, each more than 5 feet in diameter and densely foliated. On such bushes, removing blind shoots makes sense. But this is not a common problem for most rosarians.

"Do I otherwise remove some of the excess foliage sometimes? I remove excess foliage only when I see a promising shoot trying to emerge from the thicket of foliage. I clear the way, so to speak, and in doing so, I simply remove the foliage obstructing its straight path, blind shoots or not. Otherwise, the new shoot will end up without any good foliage on the lower part which was denied sunlight while it was forming foliage. With this exception, try to conserve all the foliage I can. The leaves on blind shoots and twiggy growth will all make significant contributions through photosynthesis.

"Conservation of all foliage is extremely important in the spring on those bushes that are winter damaged. I like to retain even partially dead canes if they bear a few leaves, which will die completely, necessitating later removal. But in the crucial part of early spring, those bad looking canes will have enough foliage to make a difference in the bushes' recovery.

"Again, my observation is that bushes treated thus recover faster by producing more healthy canes and basal breaks than the bushes pruned clean of all partially damaged canes.

Conclusions

Based on the observations of some of the most respected rosarians in this country and abroad, the time has come to reassess some of our deadheading teachings and pruning practices. Maximum conservation of foliage will result in more healthy canes, basal breaks, and better blooms.