How To Prune Rose Bushes For Health, Shape, and Flowers

Pruning to keep rose plants healthy and productive are matters of importance to all of us who take pleasure in growing roses. Once the why of it all is understood, the how of it is simplified.

pruning a rose bush stem with hand prunersPin

Why Prune Rose Bushes?

The purpose of pruning is to make plants grow as you wish them to. Perhaps all you want is to improve slightly on nature’s own design. Or you may impose your will more drastically, turning a bush rose into a fence rose, or a tall thick climber into a three-caned espalier. 

Proper pruning will accomplish these and other aims for you.

Pruning Is Fun

Pruning is fun – so much so that it goes to the heads of some gardeners. In the joy of their first spring work outdoors, they may get overenthusiastic and, instead of pruning judiciously, they hack away regardless. 

Go easy at first. You can always cut off a little more if it seems a good idea in a week or so, but you can’t ever put back what you shouldn’t have cut off that first, bright blue day.

Good Tools Are Required

Of course, you need good tools. Ever watch the effect on pruner – and pruned – of a dull pair of secateurs, clippers or saw, or one too light for the job in hand? 

Frustration, irritation for the pruner, mutilation for the bush, are the inevitable outcome of poor equipment. Treat yourself to a pair of good, well-balanced hand pruners for your bushes, a pair of lopping shears for climbers, and a tiny sharp saw for careful in-between removal of heavy canes and some gloves.

Two Kinds Of Wood

In general, pruning deals with two kinds of wood – dead and living. 

If you live where winters are severe, the cold will kill off so much exposed growth your efforts will largely be confined to the removal of dead wood and some minor shaping up of what remains green and usable!

If you live where temperatures rarely or occasionally go below zero – that is in one of the principal rose-growing areas – you will find that most of the top growth survives through the winter and so it is yours to deal with as you wish in spring.

graphic on pruning hybrid tea rosesPin
Remove crossing, old, or crowded wood to the base. Keep 3 or 4 canes evenly spaced and trimmed flush of twiggy top growth. Keep as much wood as possible as thick or thicker than a pencil.

When To Prune Roses?

As a rule, roses should not be pruned in fall, except to cut back any long canes which might whip about in winter winds and gash or tear into the heart of the plant. 

Through the winter, roses subsist to a degree on carbohydrates stored in the wood of the previous growing season. Cutting this back severely, before cold weather, reduces chances of survival. Let major pruning wait until a month before growth usually starts in early spring.

  • Prune so that the center of the plant is kept open. 
  • Remove crossing branches or crowded growth
  • Wherever possible take out old wood right down to the soil line. 
  • A well-pruned bush should have three or four canes, evenly distributed at the base and tending away from the center. 
  • Clean the remaining canes of all twiggy top growth. 
  • If there are small side growths, make clean cuts flush with the canes. 
  • To direct growth where you want it to go (outward facing bud), cut just above an eye or leaf bud which points in the desired direction.

How Far Should You Cut Plants Back?

How far back to cut? This is a controversial question but it has been our consistent experience that a high-pruned plant produces bigger and better blooms – and more of them – than a plant whacked close to the ground. 

Do not cut canes back to a point where the diameter is greater than that of a lead pencil, except for very good reason. Like when an aged plant must be reconditioned. If major surgery is indicated, cover the big cuts with good tree paint to protect them.

Some roses, like the Teas and Hybrid Tea roses which show Tea habits, do not produce many basal canes. New growth tends to break from older canes at some distance from the ground. 

With them, proceed as before to keep plants open and free of twiggy growth, but cut out old wood at a point where a new shoot emerges. Always make cuts close to this desired point, but obviously not into it. 

graphic on pruning large flowered rosesPin
Remove only non-producing and four-year or older wood. Shorten blooming shoots to 2 or 3 buds. On perpetuals with much new wood, keep only 3 or 4 new canes. If few new canes, do not remove older ones; shorten blooming spurs to 2 or 3 eyes each.

Keep your pruning shears sharp and well adjusted so you can do a careful job. A sloppy cut opens up an avenue for infections of the canker type and leads to endless grief.

Hybrid Teas, Floribundas, and Polyanthas, types of roses although differing somewhat in plant habit, can all be treated about the same – with three- to four-caned open centers and a high growth level maintained. Polyanthas, because of their cluster blooms, produce a considerable amount of twiggy growth and so require more thinning out than the others.

graphic - pruning polyanthas, floribundas and ramblersPin
These require much thinning. Try to shape the plant to a 3 or 4 caned open center. With ramblers, remove all wood that has bloomed. Fasten canes to support.

The tall and vigorous Hybrid Perpetuals can be pruned higher. If sufficient new wood exists, remove all the second-year canes. Keep three or four of last year’s canes, and prune these back only to 3′ feet or a little more. 

If there are not enough new canes, retain the older ones, and shorten last year’s blooming spurs or shoots to two or three eyes each.

Let the Teas pretty much alone. To bloom well, they must retain as much old wood as possible. Of course, dead and wispy growth should be removed and crowded centers opened up when necessary.

Handling Old Roses

Old roses and shrub roses can be handled as your fancy indicates. If you want to cut them back to encourage low growth, do so. If you prefer large, free-flowering shrubs, let them go with only an occasional removal of dead wood and a little thinning. 

Handle the Bourbon types as you do Hybrid Teas; the China’s like Polyanthas. Leave the species alone, removing only dead wood.

3 Groups Of Climbing Roses

For pruning purposes, climbing roses can be divided into three groups.

Prune Ramblers so as to remove all second-year wood; re-train last year’s healthy canes to the supports. In July, train this year’s growth as soon as it is long enough.

graphic - pruning climbing hybrid teasPin
Prune only enough to keep in bounds, and to suit the situation. The older the wood, the better it repeats. Cover large cuts on all rose canes with tree paint.

From the large-flowered, once-blooming climbers, remove only nonproductive wood. Shorten last year’s blooming laterals (side growths) to two or three eyes. Severely thin, or cut out completely, four-year or older wood.

With everblooming climbers and Climbing Hybrid Teas, be sparing. Prune only enough to keep them in bounds and of presentable appearance. The older the wood, the better they repeat.

With climbers, when in doubt, cut it out. 

They are normally of such vigor that a mistake will hardly be noticeable for more than a year. 

Indeed, climbers will flourish if not pruned at all, but most of them become impenetrable thickets. With a little observation, you will soon learn how to prune so as to promote looks and bloom.