Prune Roses the Right Way

Pruning Roses

Ever wonder how some people are able to contour their roses to different shapes and sizes? Why their roses seem to look flawless year round?  The key to maintaining strong, healthy roses is pruning. Pruning ensures that your plant stays healthy and vigorous while producing larger flowers with strong stems. Pruning also eliminates dead, diseased and damaged canes which ensure health of the plant. When the gardener removes canes from the center of the plant, airflow is improved; this decreases the likelihood of any form of fungus or mildew buildup to occur within the plant. Trimming the plant also allows for the gardener to become creative and shape their plant to any design they seem fit. Pruning is about more than just looks; proper pruning improves the health of your rose bush, prevents disease and encourages better flowering. There are different pruning strategies for different times of the year, but overall the goal is always the same; to keep the bush fresh and open, to allow for better air circulation through the center of the plant. Air movement dries the leaves, which helps prevent foliar diseases from attacking your roses. Fungal diseases like black spot and powdery mildew are much more common on plants with congested growth in the middle of the plant. Pruning also keeps the rose bush in proportion to the rest of your garden.The following are general pruning guidelines which are applicable to most modern rose types; Floribunda, Grandiflora, and Hybrid Tea.

When to Prune

The optimal time to prune a rose is late winter, which in most parts of the country falls within the months of January and February. During this time, the last frost should have past leaving it safe to cut into the plant without causing any form of cold damage. If you live in a certain area which suffers from severe winters, you may want to wait until early spring to prune your roses in order to prevent cold damage to your plants. If you are still unsure where or not to prune, base your pruning off of bud growth. When the buds have begun to swell, it is normally a good sign to begin pruning.

How to Prune


In order to begin you will want to make sure that you have either rose or leather gloves to protect your hands from thorns. Also, you may want to consider wearing something to protect your arms and legs.  Next, a good pair of bypass hand sheers will be needed to clear out the smaller foliage (branches about ½” or thinner), and a pair of long handled bypass loppers for the larger, thicker canes. It is important to note that the sheers and loppers should both be bypass and not anvil head (anvil heads tend to damage the plant whereas bypass makes a cleaner cut).




Before you begin the process of pruning, take the time to decide on a shape and height for the plant. Although the traditional Urn/vase shape allows for optimal air circulation within the bush, you may have some other style or design which best suits your needs. Make sure to have an idea outlined prior to trimming. Next, you are going to want to remove any form of winter protection (e.g. mounted soil, burlap, and rose cones) which may have been placed in order to provide superior work room. Once that has been completed, you should begin pruning out and removing any dead canes. Dead canes can be determined by their shriveled, blackened appearance. In contrast, a live healthy cane has a nice green outside and a cream or green color in the center of the cane. If only part of the cane is damaged, try to prune as close to the base or bud union as possible.

After the dead canes have been removed, search for and remove any rootstocks (suckers) growing from your plant. Suckers are new plants growing up from the roots of the old plant (host plant). If left alone, they will suck vital nutrients from the host plant and hinder its growth process. Whenever you find a sucker, you will need to take away the soil from around it, find where it is growing and sever it from the plant. If just cut at ground level, the rootstock will grow back stronger. Prune any remaining canes which are thinner than a pencil, cross or rub against each other (crossing or rubbing of canes are prime spots where diseases occur).

Next we can focus on the remaining healthy canes. Start by selecting four to six canes and prune to create the desired shape, leaving anywhere from one to four feet of cane depending on personal preference.

When your plant begins to bloom, you may want to trim away some of your new crop for personal use or remove the spent bloomed flowers from the plant. This process, called deadheading, is very healthy and encourages the plant to re-bloom throughout the summer. Search for a cane that is large enough to support new growth, and has at least five leaves above the bud eye. Make your incision at that location, removing any left over debris. Once winter begins, place any form of winter protection you may have for the plant and start the whole process again next year.

Special Situations

Once-Blooming Roses: Old Garden Roses that bloom only once a year produce flowers on old wood. This is growth that appears the year previous to any bloom it produces. Once-bloomers should only be pruned immediately after they finish flowering (generally around mid-July). If you prune in the spring, you will lose all of that year’s bloom. Old Garden Roses can be pruned to 15 inches every other year without damage. This keeps a large bush within bounds and provides shaping. If you don’t mind the size of the bush, then only prune for dead, damaged and diseased canes or other growth that is undesirable to you.
Hedge Roses: you will prune differently if you wish a hedge effect than if you are shaping an individual bush. For a hedge, your bushes will be planted closer together than normally and should be treated as a unit. Prune for an even growth production.
Roses in Pots: are pruned in much the same way as those in the ground. Generally pots are on the patio or near a pathway. Keeping the bush trimmed so it doesn’t reach out and grab the passerby is a good practice!
Roses that Colonize: produce new growth from the roots and spread out to cover a large area. Some Gallicas and a few Centifolias will do this. Instead of pruning at the soil level, just use a shovel and dig up the extra growth. These are roses you can give your friends or plant in new locations of your own garden. This is how many roses were transported from one part of the country to another in the early days of wagon trains. ‘Harison’s Yellow’ is one such example.
Groundcover Roses: tend to grow wider than they do tall. If your groundcover rose is outgrowing its space, resist the temptation to chop the ends of the lower branches. These roses should not be pruned in a vase shape, as that will direct their growth upward instead of outward. In general, shearing roses like topiary shrubs is a bad idea, and it will be difficult to recover the form of the rose. If a branch is getting too long, follow that cane all the way back and remove it at the center.
Hybrid Musk Roses: prune lightly to remove spent bloom clusters and maintain a rounded bush at 3-4 feet (or taller if you have room). Hybrid Musks tolerate more severe pruning if space is limited.
Miniature Roses: should be cut back by 1/3 in the spring. These roses are very resilient and may be pruned at any time of the year to shape the bush.