Rose Pruning

By Cheryl Underwood

Rose pruning uses the same basic principles as other pruning and is done with similar objectives in mind.  It differs somewhat in method and timing depending upon exactly what type of rose you have.

The right tools, in good condition, play a very important part in the correct and successful pruning of roses. Make sure you have a good, sharp pair of hand pruners for the smaller canes and a good, sharp pair of loppers for the larger ones. You may also find it convenient to have a small pruning saw available if you plan on removing older, larger canes. A clean cut encourages quick healing of the wound and reduces the potential for disease.

Why, When and How?

Why do we prune roses? I believe that the primary reason we prune roses is for aesthetics. We want them to look a certain way. We want them to be ‘beautiful’ plants that will add to the enjoyment of our landscape. We want them to stay within certain boundaries of size. We want them to produce lots of blooms or larger blooms. But pruning also encourages a healthier and more vigorous plant.  It can help reduce damage to canes and removes crowded and/or compromised canes to help discourage disease and It encourages new growth that produces healthier canes and more beautiful blooms for us to enjoy.

When we prune roses depends upon the type of rose it is that we are pruning. The exception is that dead and/or diseased wood can be pruned out at any time. Once blooming roses should be pruned just after the bloom has finished, usually mid-summer. These roses bloom from buds that will form on the previous year’s growth. Repeat blooming roses typically are pruned late winter to early spring. It is preferable to wait until there is a smaller threat of a hard frost.

How- General Rose Pruning Guidelines

  • Rose bushes less than three years old should be pruned sparingly so that they can become well established.  Preserve as many of the leaves as possible when pruning.
  • Know your rose. If you do not know what kind of rose you have- observe its nature. (eg: bloom time and length, form and growth habit)
  • Remove any dead, broken or diseased canes.  Then remove any crossing or congested growth.  Older, non-productive canes can be removed. The goal is to open up the center of the plant for better air circulation and sunlight penetration. 
  • Any small, twiggy growth that is smaller in diameter than a pencil should be removed, since it will never be vigorous enough to support good bloom
  • Pruning cuts should be made ¼ inch above a bud that is pointed in the direction of desired growth. Also, the angle of the cut is not so important as making sure you do not damage the bud below. The cut should be as cleanly made as is possible. 
  • Good guidelines are to remove about one-third of the overall height of main canes or to prune the plant to about one foot lower than desired ultimate height.  Optimal pruning height to produce the most blooms is ~30-36”. If a plant is pruned shorter, it usually results in fewer, but larger blooms. Larger blooms are desirable for those exhibiting in rose competitions.
  • After pruning, clean up. Remove dead leaves from the canes and dispose of them, as well as any other pruning litter produced. This can help to control disease organisms, such as fungal spores, that may have overwintered on dead foliage. 

Techniques for Specific Rose Types

How we go about pruning our roses depends upon what kind of rose we are pruning. This is where it may get a little more complicated. Many of the most common types of roses you might encounter are grouped depending upon their bloom time and their habit of growth. If you do not know what kind of rose you have, take the time to observe it’s natrure. Does it bloom more than once in a season? What is its growth habit? Does it have very upright canes? Is it more bushy with smaller branching and twigs? Does it have quite long canes and vigorous growth? The answers will help you decide how to prune your rose.

Modern Bush Roses are repeat-flowering roses and should be pruned late winter/early spring as the emerging buds begin to swell. This group includes Hybrid Teas, Floribundas,  Grandifloras, Polyanthas, Patio Roses, Miniatures and Minifloras. Remove any dead, unhealthy or unproductive shoots, then any shoots that are crossing or crowding the center of the bush.  Shorten the remaining canes by 1/3 to ½ of the overall height. With Floribundas, buds may not always be visible on stems that have had large sprays of flowers.  Cut to the approximate desired height, and a nearby dormant bud should be stimulated into life. Polyanthas and Patio roses are smaller versions of cluster-flowered roses such as floribundas.  Pruning is the same as for a floribunda, but on a smaller scale. Remove about one-third of growth on main stems. Miniatures require very little pruning.  They naturally have a twiggy growth habit.  Remove some congested canes if desired. You may also shorten the height by one-third. Minifloras are roses intermediate between a floribunda and a miniature, prune as for a floribunda, but on a slightly smaller scale.

Shrub Roses are repeat flowering roses and should be pruned in late winter/early spring as well. This group includes Modern Shrub Roses, English Roses, Hybrid Musks and Rugosa roses. The growth habit for these roses is much more twiggy which is reflected in the pruning technique. For Modern Shrub Roses, English Roses, and Hybrid Musks remove one or two old unproductive canes at the base if needed, and shorten remaining main canes by up to one-third.  Little thinning of canes is required. For Rugosa roses little pruning is required.  The American Rose Society says about Rugosa roses “Unlike most garden roses, rugosas object to heavy pruning.” Tip-prune long stems and occasionally remove an old stem completely. Of course, any dead canes can be removed as well.

Groundcover Roses are repeat flowering roses and should be pruned in late winter to early spring. Little pruning is required, except to keep plants in bounds.  These respond well to hard pruning if necessary to rejuvenate plants. Deadheading is usually tedious and not necessary, since many of these roses shed their faded petals quickly.

Old Garden Roses generally have their own particular forms and growth habits that provide a pleasing aspect in the garden.  It is a good idea to get acquainted with your old roses for a couple of years before attempting to prune them, to avoid ruining their natural, pleasant form with improper pruning. Most Old Garden Roses require only light pruning, if any at all.  Prune occasionally to remove old, unproductive canes or to thin very dense, inner growth.  If shoots need to be shortened, prune no more than one-third of their length.

For once-blooming types, such as Albas, Damasks, Gallicas, Centifolias and Mosses, if any pruning is necessary these should be pruned immediately after flowering, around July at the latest, so that the plant will have the rest of the summer to produce new growth and new flower buds for next year.  If you prune while the roses are dormant you will be removing flowers for the coming season. Deadhead the plants after bloom, unless they produce attractive hips that you want to enjoy for fall.

For repeat-blooming types, such as Bourbons, Portlands and Hybrid Perpetuals, prune as needed while dormant.  Deadhead throughout the summer to encourage more blooms.

Species or wild roses are once blooming roses and do not have to be pruned, though they may benefit from occasionally removing an old cane or two to keep them looking good. If you do, prune them immediately after they bloom. Next years blooms are formed on the growth that occurs for the rest of the season.

Ramblers are once-blooming roses and as such should be pruned after flowering. They are wild roses or hybrids that retain the character of their wild ancestors.  Their vigorous, rampant habit does not require pruning except to keep them in check and reduce the tangle of their long, wild stems.  They can grow as groundcovers or can be trained as climbers.

Climbing Roses can be repeat blooming or once blooming. Repeat bloomers do not need their main, long, arching canes pruned but maybe every three to four years, if ever.  They need time to build long flowering canes.  These flowering canes will produce lateral side shoots that are the real flowering stems.   If climbing roses are pruned every year, they will actually produce fewer blooms. Also, pruning back the long canes will alter the look and careful training of the climber. Pruning of established climbers consists of removing small twiggy canes and old, woody, less vigorous canes at the plant’s base.  Once blooming climbing roses should only be pruned immediately after blooming if at all. Many produce attractive fruit. Of course pruning out dead or diseased canes can happen at any time and pruning to control size is also something to keep in mind. Many once bloomers are quite vigorous and can grow an amazing amount during the season. I have had experience with a Bobbie James rose, which is a once blooming rambler, that can grow multiple feet in the span of a couple of weeks.

This is a relatively short course on pruning roses and there is much more information available on the subject on the internet, in books and through your rose society community.  Just know that there is no single correct way for pruning roses. Use these recommendations to get started and then let your experience and your roses guide you from there.

Happy pruning.