2021 Freeze Alert: Dealing with Freeze Damage

by Baxter Williams, ARS Master Rosarian

“The freezing weather ‘cooked’ my buds and new growth, and my stems are dying. Can I save my bushes, or are they going to die?” No, they shouldn’t die, but you will need to re-prune them. Here are the steps:

1. Pinch, or cut off the little wilted growths. They won’t rejuvenate.

2. If there are damaged stems, cut them off down to healthy tissue. After making a cut, there should be no brown or discolored center in the cane. If there is, keep cutting farther down the cane until white or green color is seen. And let your selection of the place for the next cut be judicious. I recommend that the cut be such that it will result in a stem that will be most-nearly vertical, with little reason to curve; cutting to “an outward pointing eye” always results in a curved stem. Note: The significant reason to groom a bush into having “an open bowl-shaped center” is to allow sunlight to reach foliage in the middle of the bush, not to provide better air circulation. Better air circulation does almost nothing to prevent or control fungus infection --- that is what I use fungicides for.

3. The final location of the cut should be 1/8-inch above a “clean” eye, i.e., one having no foliar growth around it, only a smooth rounded bump.

4. When it is necessary to remove a cane at the bud union, it would be good to seal the cut to prevent bacteria from causing rotting at the site. Seal the cut using white (Elmer’s) wood-working glue, not tree pruning paint.

5. A few days after re-pruning is done you will see new growth. It should be of the same diameter as the cane that has been cut.

6. Sometimes three new growths will appear at a node that has been cut. Experience will show that the middle stem of the three will be weaker than the two outside ones; and if you remove the two outside ones the middle one will be a strong one --- it is your choice: a strong single cane (middle), or two slightly smaller ones.

7. And sometimes very short new growths will occur, with many small foliages, e.g., five leaflets on a 1-inch stem. This known as a “blind shoot”; it will not make a flower, so the entire growth can be pinched/cut off, allowing stronger growths elsewhere. If allowed to remain, such a weak growth will be an ideal spot for aphids and blackspot to occur.

8. Collect your clippings, and compost them. They were not diseased, and are made from actual rose material, including the nutrients that you had put into the soil for the bushes to eat.

9. When you first pruned your bushes you probably removed about 1/2-1/3 of their height --- a matter of personal preference and historical practice --- and now you must go farther. I remember asking the late well-known rose expert, Guy Blake Hedrick, Jr., why his bushes were planted so low that their bud unions were essentially in hole at ground level. He told me that he mounded soil up over the bud unions because, there in NE Oklahoma, the bitter winters to keep them from freeze damage. The canes sticking up out of the soil would die and turn black, but the parts under the soil would remain green and viable for spring growth. As a result every year his plants essentially had all new basal breaks. And folks, you could almost never beat his roses on the show tables! So don’t worry about pruning your bushes way down, if necessary. I have already cut about 6-feet off my better Hybrid Teas, and if I need to cut another 2-3 feet off, I'll do it.

Hope this helps you and your roses get past the wild weather we just experienced.

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