Despite the bad reputation roses get as being difficult to grow, just like any other plant they thrive when properly cared for. Crucial to rose growth, health, and production is how and when you prune- which is actually a very simple process to understand and apply.
Many people avoid plants that require pruning due to their fear of cutting what they shouldn’t and ruining the integrity of the plant. You should never avoid a plant because of pruning requirements since it is a much simpler process than what is assumed. Go find yourself a comfortable pair of gloves and a sharp set of pruners to tackle this project head on because these tips for pruning roses are going to have you running to the store to pick out your next rose bush.
Why Prune a Rose Bush?
Roses have the unique ability to break buds on old wood, so even if you cut too much, it’s nearly impossible to kill your rose due to pruning. In fact, many roses thrive because of well placed cuts and will bloom more proliferate because of it.
Certain species of roses will send out canes every which way, creating a crazy, out of control look. Criss-crossed and unsupported canes can create shady areas that block the sunlight, hold moisture, and support insect life and disease growth. Pruning areas of wild abandon can help the overall health of the rose and keep it under control.
Roses may have dead or damaged canes due to winter kill or insects. Removing these areas help reduce the spread of anything that could be further damaging, and also opens up the inside of the bush for better air flow and sunlight.
Depending on the type of rose you have, you can control the overall appearance and help train your rose to look the way you want it to. You also can remove unsightly twigs, deadheads, and leaves to provide a more manicured look through the growing season.
What You Need
You don’t need a lot to prune your roses, but there are a few things you definitely want in your arsenal of tools to help you have a drama free rose pruning experience.
Long, leather topped garden gloves
Invest in a good pair of protective garden gloves, preferably those that cover your wrists and forearms to provide a barrier between you and sharp thorns.
Bypass Shears or Pruners
Do NOT purchase an anvil type pruner. These can crush the stem as they close. Rather get a bypass shear that overlap for a clean cut.
Be sure to rinse off your shears before use and before you move from one plant to the next. If any plant is diseased you can spread the pathogen via the shears if care is not taken to clean them off.
How to Cut
As mentioned, you can’t often take too much off a rose bush and cause lasting, permanent damage. But there are a few things to consider to improve the bush appearance and ensure healthy, controlled growth. This technique is good for all seasonal pruning techniques.
- Always make your cut about ¼” above an outward facing budeye (new bud growth) or outward facing, mature set of leaflets. Both these areas support new growth and rebloom.
- Cut at a 45 degree angle with the downwards slope falling away from the eye. This helps the rising sap to be drawn away from the budeye to keep from covering it, and helps to naturally seal the open cane wound.
Seasonal Rose Pruning
Although healthy pruning habits are common while plants are in dormancy, roses can be pruned through any season, especially if you gather blooms for arrangements. Always use the tips provided above when cutting to ensure the best growth.
When pruning for controlled growth and shape make your cuts in late winter before the plant begins to leaf out. This allows you to see the skeleton of the plant for shaping purposes, and also allows you to easily spot any dead or decayed canes from winter dieback. If you don’t want to cut too early for fear of a late cold spell, wait until the plant begins to show bud growth.
Don’t be afraid to use your pruners in a liberal manner. This helps rejuvenate the bush and forces energy into new growth on new canes. Old canes will still bloom, but will be reduced. If you feel the cane is spent, cut it out. Also remove crossed canes and interior canes to promote air flow and allow the sunlight in.
You also should also cut the bush down 18 to 24 inches. You may not have as many blooms if you cut even more, but they will be larger, more showy blooms.
Cutting flowers for arrangements, deadheading, and cutting out rose hips can encourage new blooms. Look for mature leaflets of 5 to 7 facing outwards to cut to promote new growth and rebloom. If your plant is a floribunda and has clusters of flowers, deadhead each individual flower and then prune back the entire truss after all the flowers have been spent.
Summer pruning also includes removing sucker canes from the roots, maintenance, shaping, and removal of poor branching connections or damaged canes.
Fall pruning should be done with care, especially in areas that have harsh winters. Longer stems can be trimmed back a bit to keep them from snapping due to winter storms. Crossed branches can also be removed in case they rub and blow against each other and damage the cane.
Remove foliage and take out dead, diseased, or damaged materials as well. Canes smaller than a pencil diameter are safe to remove since many times they are nonproductive that late in the season. A rule of thumb is to take about ⅓ of the height and thin it out a little before winter, but leaning plenty of room for additional pruning come spring.
Pruning for Health
Most pruning techniques follow the 3 D’s: removing dead, damaged, and diseased branches or canes. This can be done at any time of year to promote growth and keep your bush healthy. Dead branches are unsightly, but can also attract mold and fungus if they begin to decay in humid climates.
Damaged material will seep sap and attract insects that spread disease or may feed on the weakened cane, weakening the plant even more. Diseased areas can easily spread throughout the plant as well as pass onto nearby plants via wind and insects.
Although roses have a defense mechanism that will create a break between healthy tissue and dead or dying material in an attempt to quarantine spread, occasionally this doesn’t work and you should keep a close eye on your plants if you suspect any sort of death occurring. Following your pruning techniques, but be sure your cut shows a clean white or light green cross-section since decay can creep down the inside of a cane before it shows to the outside.
Rose Hips: To Prune or Not to Prune?
Rose hips are the rounded fruits produced by roses after pollination. They usually form through the fall and winter, although some varieties may begin to show hips during active growth. Their creation triggers dormancy so if you see them formed through the growing season, their removal will stimulate new growth and flowering. If you live in a warmer climate, allow them to form in the fall to help the bush go dormant through the cooler weather.
Tips for Rose Types and Non-Traditional Growth
Although the above tips are all wonderful ways to help ensure the overall health and aesthetics of your rose bushes, there are a few other tips worth considering for specialized growth and specific varieties of roses. Take into account the following if this applies to your roses.
Large Blooming Variety Support
A large bloom needs a sturdy cane to support the weight of the flower. Force new growth by pruning further down the stem than the first mature leaflet. If you prune too far up the new growth may be too weak to support the weight.
Old style roses only bloom one a year on old wood. These canes should be pruned as soon as they are spent to influence growth for the next year’s flowers. If you prune in spring you will lose the current year’s flowers, and if you prune in fall you might not have as many flowers the following year. You can also leave them be and only remove the 3 D’s although these bushes will get quite large when left to their own devices.
If you are planting roses to create a hedge, be sure to plant them close enough to grow well together and then prune them as one unit rather than individual plants. Prune them for shaping and health.
Roses Growing in Pots
Treat your potted roses as you would if they were growing in the ground. If you find them to be blooming less prolific than normal, or have weak growth, they may be root bound and need a larger pot.
Colonizing roses produce new growth from the roots to spread out over a large area. The easiest way to keep these species under control is to simply dig up extra growth as it becomes apparent and transplant elsewhere or share with friends.
Climbing roses have both a main and lateral cane. The main canes grow directly from the base and should never be pruned because they put energy into growth before flowering. If you cut the main canes then it will put the energy into regrowing them and may not bloom. Otherwise, prune your lateral canes as you would any other rose.
Knock-Out roses shouldn’t be pruned until they reach mature heights, usually around their 3rd or 4th year of growth. Because they only bloom on new growth, cutting out old growth first is a priority. Generally they can be pruned in the same manner as other roses and be taken back about ⅓ their height in the spring, and then pruned mid-season after bloom to encourage new growth and blooming. Keep the bush deadheaded and free of rose hips as well.
Groundcover roses grow wider than they are tall, but if your bush is outgrowing where it belongs, if you prune the lower branches it will force the bush to grow upwards. To help control the width of a groundcover variety, cut the cane at the base.
Hybrid Musk Varieties
The best way to keep a hybrid musk rose maintained is to prune lightly to remove spent flower clusters and shaped to a rounded bush. They can tolerate severe pruning as well in needed due to overall size and available space.
Miniature roses are very resilient and can be pruned at any time of year. Generally if you cut them back ⅓ their height in spring you will get the best blooms.
Roses are highly resilient to pruning and thrive when cut properly. Even if you are new to this job, it is hard over prune and cause long lasting damage. Simply following the basics of the cut and remember the rules of the 3 D’s to get started improving the overall appearance and health of your flowering rose bush!
If you have any rose pruning questions or tips to share, please let us know below. And, as always, please share!