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We’ve all seen them. They’re easiest to see in winter when the leaves are all gone, but you can see them throughout the year; rosebushes with one, two, or three short basal canes, all thick and grey, often with old bark covering the thorns. Because well-cared-for roses put out a lot of new growth, one of the ways to tell if a rose is happy is how many basal canes it has that aren’t gnarly and barked-up.

 Gnarly Canes
Barked-up roses can hang on for years, putting out a couple of blooming shoots in Spring as a reminder of what they could be. Often these small flushes persuade us to ‘let it be and see what happens next year.’ Unfortunately, unless something is done, next year will be just another step in the slow decline of that particular plant. This article will try to explain what’s going on and what to do about it.

Why are they gnarly in the first place? As canes age, they get thicker and their bark gets thicker, too. The gnarly old canes can be decades old, in some cases. The problem is that the older canes don’t produce shoots and blooms like newer growth, and they aren’t as resistant to diseases.

Gnarly Canes
So, what do you do? That depends on your attachment to the plant and variety and the ease of getting another of that variety. If you’re not attached to it, go ahead and replace it. If you are sentimentally attached to the particular plant, or like the variety but can’t get a good replacement, consider rejuvenation, with the goal of causing enough new growth that the old barky canes can all be removed over time.

The first steps in rejuvenation is to see if there’s some underlying reason for the shortage of young growth.

Step 1: Site Assessment

Does the site get at least 4, preferably 6 hours of direct sun per day? Is the plant getting enough water? Roses need at least 4 gallons per week, big ones 8 or more. Does the soil have enough organic matter, or is it hard-packed adobe? Does the rose have to compete with tree roots or thick undergrowth of weeds or over-exuberant companion plants? If any of these situations exist, they need to be corrected in order for rejuvenation to work. It may be that the location itself just isn’t right for roses. If so, you’ll want to move the rose to a place that doesn’t have those shortcomings.

Step 2: Care Assessment

If you haven’t already been feeding and mulching consistently, now is the time to start a routine. An easy routine is to put down some Osmocote Plus with Minors in Spring and cover with 3” of redwood bark mulch. More involved regimens will produce better results, of course; feel free to indulge. Second, and this might be a little personal, is there even the tiniest possibility that you may have inadvertently been removing the new growth? New growth coming up from the base of the plant can look different than the established canes when it first comes out, especially compared to barky gnarled canes, and you’d not be the first gardener to remove new basal breaks, thinking they were weeds or suckers. Since the major goal of rejuvenation is to cause as many basal breaks as possible, do be sure you don’t remove them!

Step 3: Minor (major) Surgery

If it’s past normal pruning time, decide whether you want to start now, and run a moderate risk to the plant, or wait until the annual pruning and rejuvenate then. Assuming now is the time you’ve chosen for rejuvenating, count the total number of basal canes coming from the ground, and the number of those which are completely barky. On the table below, read down the left column until you find the number of total basal canes your plant has, and read across the table until you find the column corresponding to the number of barky basal canes.

  # Barky Basal Canes
Total Basal Canes 1 barky canes 2 barky canes 3 or more barky canes
1 total
0 -- keep it! N/A N/A
2 total
Remove 1 barky cane Remove 1 barky cane N/A
3 total
Remove 1 barky cane Remove 1 barky cane Remove 1 barky cane
4 or more Remove 1 barky cane Remove 2 barky canes Remove 2 barky canes

As an example, assume your bush had a total of four basal breaks, of which three were barky. Going down the left column to the bottom row labeled ‘4 or more’ and then across to the column under ‘3 or more barky canes’ the table would indicate the removal of two of the barky canes. Remove the indicated number of barky canes by sawing them off as close as possible to the bud union.

Step 4: Intensive Care

Your rose now needs special attention to be sure it gets what it needs; this is no time to stress the plant. Water heavily, make sure the mulch is on, and fertilize lightly. In a couple of months, perhaps sooner, you will see that most wonderful of things, new shoots coming up from the ground. Keep the water coming, and give a little more fertilizer. By next pruning, you’ll have several new canes. While pruning, use the above table to guide removal of other barky canes; after a season or two you’ll have a rejuvenated bush!

Rejuvenated Canes
Step 5: Prevention

How can we avoid gnarly roses? During each annual pruning of established roses, rosarians should consider removing one, or sometimes two, old barky canes, depending on how many basals the plant has. This directs the plant’s resources to the other, younger canes, and opens up space for the bud union to send up a new basal break. Over time, this removal of the oldest canes keeps the old plant full of new growth.

Last updated: 3/7/09
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