Roses, Fruit Trees, and Fountain Grass

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Q. My roses haven’t been pruned in several years and are now seven feet plus. When will it be too late to prune as the new growth is starting to emerge? If not, how far back can I prune them? I’ve heard that roses will go into shock if you remove more than half the growth.

A. The winter pruning season can extend into late March. The appearance of the new growth does not signal the end of the pruning season, as roses are pruned year-round. Most gardeners don’t think of it as pruning, but deadheading the spent flowers during the summer and fall months as a form of pruning. Late season pruning, let’s say mid-March on, will only delay when the first flush of flowers are in bloom. In addition, it’s just a ‘gardening myth’ that the bushes will go into shock from pruning. The more I think about it, it just doesn’t make any sense. You haven’t disturbed any of the roots, just reduced the length of the canes. Roses are very resilient plants. They can take a lot of abuse from a pair of hand pruners or neglect. They respond nicely with improved cultural practices. Different pruning techniques are used with the different seasons. The cool winter months allow you to cut the bushes back, exposing the bare canes. If we were to do this in August, the green canes would turn black and die from sunburn. At that time of the year, you would have to cover the plants with shade cloth until the new leaves develop. The leaves shade the canes from the harsh sun. During the growing season, your goals are to remove the spent flowers, reduce the height and bring in the sides. I’d have no problem cutting the bushes down to three to four feet looking for an outside bud. An outside bud or shoot is one that is growing away from the center of the plant. If you don’t find one, wait a couple of weeks and then finish the job. You may have to alter this because of a pathway, or a barrier like a fence of the side of the garage. In addition, remove any dead wood and eliminate the rubbing and crossing branches along with those canes that are growing close to one another. The remaining canes at the base should be spaced about the width of your pruning shears. There is no reason to shy away from pruning today.

Q. We had a problem with fruit tree borers. They’ve killed a cherry and a nectarine tree. What can I do to prevent the borers from returning as we’re thinking about planting new ones?

A. Borers on deciduous fruit trees such as plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, and nectarines occur when they come under stress. Healthy trees will successfully fight them off. The key to preventing borers is good cultural practices that minimize tree stress. The stress is caused by drought, excessive summer watering in clay soil and trees that are planted too deep. Signs of the problem are excessive amounts of sap on the trunk and major branches, dieback in the canopy, and a decreasing amount of new growth each spring. When planting bare root fruit trees, the final soil line should be at the top of the first root. So, here is how you’ll get it right every time. Once the hole is dug, center a 3/4″by 3/4″by 4′ stake in the hole. Lay the handle of your shovel across the hole and make a mark with a Sharpie on the stake. This is the grade level. The tree is attached to the stake so the top of the first root is at the mark and then fill in the hole with the amended backfill. Next year, remove the stake as it has done its job. The new root ball is sufficient to prevent the tree from sinking and being buried too deep. For those trees in containers, the top of the root ball should be a half-inch above the grade to allow for sinkage. You could add a stake to anchor the tree. Mulching later will cover any exposed roots along with the canopy of the tree itself. Plums, Cherries, Apricots, Peaches or Nectarines should never be planted in turf areas. The constant summer water necessary for grass are very problematical. They should be planted in open areas with nothing growing under their canopies. For the first growing season, fruit trees should be watered weekly when the temperatures are above eighty degrees. During the second growing season twice a month and monthly from the third season on. Large watering basins should be constructed so a sufficient amount of water is applied to each tree every time you water. Except for those trees with late-ripening crop, you stop watering deciduous fruit trees at the end of September.

Q. My Fountain Grass has turned brown. How far back can I prune it? Also when will be nice and full again?

A. Fountain grass is pruned down to the ground. The new growth will appear at the base of the clump, as the days get longer and warmer. After Memorial Day, the growth rate will accelerate and the plant should reach full size by mid-July. Now, this all depend on the weather. You can encourage the new growth with a hand full or two of a balanced fertilizer around the drip line in March.

Buzz Bertolero is an Advanced California Certified Nursery Professional and the Senior Gardening Professional at Sloat Garden Centers. The Dirt Gardener’s website is and questions can be sent by email to

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