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How to Prune Roses

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.

General Pruning Guidelines

Whether you are deadheading blooms during the summer or performing your annual spring cutback, it is important to consider how roses grow. In other words, how you cut is always the same. Pruning cuts should always be made just above a bud eye. "Bud eye" refers to the area on the stem where branching occurs; on roses, there is always a dormant bud where leaves attach to the stem. In the summer, it's really easy to figure out where to prune – just cut right above a set of mature leaves. You'll have to look a little harder to find the bud eye on dormant or older canes; they are located just above the crescent-shaped leaf scars along the stem.

Latent bud or "bud eye" and Leaf Scar

Examples of Latent Bud or "Bud Eye"
and Leaf Scar 

Examples of Bud Swell
and Leaf Scar

What is interesting about roses is their willingness to break bud on old wood. Not all shrubs have this ability. Junipers, for example, are notoriously bad about leafing out on old stems; cut back too far, and you are looking into the dead center of the bush. Roses, on the other hand, are perfectly capable of sending new shoots out of old branches, even if they are size of a tree trunk! This is good news for the novice pruner, for it is nearly impossible to kill a rose by over-pruning. It also means you can rejuvenate older bushes by cutting them nearly all the way to the ground.

Latent buds remain viable on old wood

Latent buds remain viable on old wood
(although they are harder to see)
Examples of latent bud or "bud eye"
and leaf scar  

New growth will be forced even if pruning cut is severe (3" diameter)

Now that you are aware of where bud eyes are located on the stem, making a pruning cut on a rose is relatively straightforward. Make a slanted cut just above an outward-facing bud eye. Cutting at a slant helps water run off of the wound, which prevents water from collecting on the end of canes as well as being more aesthetically appealing. After you make your pruning cut, the rose will direct its growth to the closest bud, and send out a new terminal shoot. You choose an outward-facing bud eye to ensure this new growth is directed away from the center of the plant (improving air circulation as previously mentioned). It is generally not necessary to put anything on the pruning wound. You may apply Elmer's Glue-All over the cut if rose cane borers are a problem pest in your area.

Basic Rose Pruning Cut

Basic pruning – angled cut 1/4" above
outside facing bud eye

Finished Rose Pruning Cut

Finished pruning cut

Pruning for Rose Health

Basic rose pruning involves the 3 D's: removing Dead, Damaged or Diseased branches. Dieback is common in roses and most often occurs when a pruning cut has been made in the middle of a branch as opposed to at the bud eye. Since the rose wants to direct growth into the terminal bud, any portion of the branch left between the pruning cut and next bud eye will die back. Sometimes the closest bud eye is not viable, in which case dieback would occur farther down the stem to the next healthy bud. Dead wood is typically brown in color but may also be blackish if caused by winter cold damage or frost injury.

Examples of dead rose wood and necrotic tissue advancing down the rose stem

Examples of dead rose wood and necrotic tissue advancing down the rose stem

Example of winter freeze damage

Example of winter freeze damage

As part of its natural defense system, the rose will attempt to quarantine dieback and create a clear break point between healthy tissue and dead tissue. However, depending on the cause of damage, there may be a leading edge of dying tissue advancing down the stem. For this reason, it is always a good idea to prune dead wood out, no matter what time of year it is. Look at the color of the stem to see if you've cut back far enough; dead tissue often extends farther down the center of the stem. Healthy branches will be pure white or light green in cross-section. Any discoloration indicates dying tissue and should be cut out.

Prune out dead wood well below necrotic tissue

Prune out dead wood well below necrotic tissue

Discoloration is leading edge of necrotic tissue. Make a second pruning cut lower on stem.

Discoloration is leading edge of necrotic tissue. Make a second pruning cut lower on stem.
Healthy wood is white in cross-section.

Damaged or diseased wood is also easy to spot, and often goes hand in hand as damaged areas create entry opportunities for diseases. In roses, damaged areas are common on crossing branches, where motion from wind causes thorns to rub against adjacent canes. Wind damage can also occur during the main growing season when top-heavy branches laden with blooms snap in half during stormy weather. Diseased branches usually involve some type of stem canker, or lesions from fungal diseases like black spot or downy mildew, and should be removed promptly to prevent the pathogen from spreading.

Damage canes provide entry for pathogens

Damage canes provide entry for pathogens
and insect attack (black spot and powdery mildew winter over on lesions).

Blossom-heavy stem snapped in half by wind

Blossom-heavy stem snapped in half by wind
(a common injury to large-flowered climbers)

Prune out diseased canes.

Prune out diseased canes.

Again, the overall goal with rose pruning is to open up the center of the bush to allow for better air circulation and remove older wood. Maintaining a youthful, clean rose plant is the best way to keep your rose healthy and productive.

BAD - Too congested in center of plant

BAD - Too congested in center of plant

GOOD - Open center allows air to circulate

GOOD - Open center allows air to circulate

Seasonal Rose Pruning

There are differing opinions about when to prune roses. Some people like to prune in the fall, some in the spring. Heirloom says: both (with the exception of once-blooming roses, which should be pruned once just after flowering – see section on "Special Situations"). In addition, grooming your plants during the summer will present a more appealing rose bush. Let's take a closer look at the pruning goals for each season...

The Fall

In the Fall: prune to prevent wind breakage, whipping and scarring by long canes. Observe your roses on a windy day to gauge potential problem areas. As a general rule, you should prune out all canes thinner than a pencil in diameter on hybrid teas, shrub roses and climbers. These thin canes tend to whip around in the wind and will scar their neighbors. You should also remove any errant crossing branches at this time for the same reason.

Prune out crossing branches

Prune out crossing branches

Prune out all branches smaller

Prune out all branches smaller
than a pencil in diameter

Taller canes securely tied to support

Taller canes securely tied to support
on this winter-pruned climbing rose.

Pruning long canes will prevent the possibility of the roots being loosened as a result of strong winds or freeze/thaw cycles. Wind also pulls moisture out of plants, so reducing the overall volume of the plant is helpful. Shorten all canes to chest height as a winter protection measure. Prune all large climbers back to where they can be securely tied to their support structure.

As far as timing goes, try to prune late enough into your growing season where pruning will not push a lot of new tender growth that would be affected by an early freeze. In the Pacific NW, late October or early November is usually the optimal time. Be careful not to over-prune in the fall; a general guideline is to reduce the overall height of the plant by 1/3 and thin the center out slightly to accommodate stronger wind gusts.

 

Pruning Objectives:Improve Air Circulation, Deadhead for Rebloom, Shape/Maintenance, Remove Old Canes, Crossing Stems, Weak Wood and Dead, Damaged or Diseased Root Stock

Pruning Objectives:Improve Air Circulation, Deadhead for Rebloom, Shape/Maintenance, Remove Old Canes, Crossing Stems, Weak Wood and Dead, Damaged or Diseased Root Stock

Fall Pruning: thin and remove crossing canes to prevent wind damage. Reduce overall height by 1/3 to prevent root lift. Clean debris from base of plant to reduce disease.

Fall Pruning: thin and remove crossing canes to prevent wind damage. Reduce overall height by 1/3 to prevent root lift. Clean debris from base of plant to reduce disease.

The Spring

In the Spring: rejuvenate your roses with a hard annual pruning. Prune to shape your bush, clean out dead wood and worn out, weak, spent canes. This is your main opportunity to correct any problems with overall form or reduce the height of roses that are outgrowing their space. Most roses bloom on new wood, and tend to have reduced bloom on old canes. Let the "Rule of Thumb" be your guide – new growth about the diameter of your thumb make the best canes. If the branch is bigger than your ordinary loppers can tackle (1-1/2" or larger), it probably should be removed.

For most rose bushes, leaving 6-8 strong, healthy canes is ideal to produce a full and shapely plant without overcrowding. Floribundas or shrub roses tend to have more branches by nature, so you may want to leave more canes on those types of roses. For most roses, spring pruning should reduce the overall height of the bush to 18-24." The shorter you prune – the fewer blooms you will have, but generally these blooms will be larger. Leaving taller canes will produce smaller blooms in more abundance. Remove all dead, damaged, and diseased canes, crossing branches, and thin so the bush is open and ready to accommodate new growth.

Spring pruning is really dependent on the weather. Most people in the Pacific NW prune their roses in either late February or early March. California growers typically "spring prune" in January. Midwest patrons may have to wait until early May. Keep an eye on your plants and the temperatures; time your pruning just as the new growth starts. You generally don't want to prune if there is still a chance of a hard frost, which would damage the tender new growth. If new growth is damaged by temperatures below 25 degrees, you may have to re-prune shorter but this shouldn't happen very often.

Pruning Objectives:Improve Air Circulation, Deadhead for Rebloom, Shape/Maintenance, Remove Old Canes, Crossing Stems, Weak Wood and Dead, Damaged or Diseased Root Stock

Spring Rose Pruning: Remove all dead/diseased wood, Retire old wood to invigorate plant, Select 6-8 strongest canes for new season's growth, Reduce overall height to 18-24"

Fall Pruning: thin and remove crossing canes to prevent wind damage. Reduce overall height by 1/3 to prevent root lift. Clean debris from base of plant to reduce disease.

Spring Pruning: remove interior and crossing branches to promote good air circulation through the center of the rose bush

The Summer

In the Summer: deadheading (removing spent blooms) will prevent seed hip formation and therefore encourage new blooms as well as keep the bush attractive. Remove the spent bloom and make your pruning cut down the cane just above an outward-facing set of mature leaflets. Mature leaflets are usually 5-7 in number; immature leaflets only have 3 leaves. If you prune back to only 3 leaves, you will not get any new growth or rebloom.

Floribunda or hybrid musk roses that bloom in clusters present some unique challenges; the individual flowers should be deadheaded as they fade, then the entire truss pruned back to a mature leaflet once all the flowers have bloomed. Keep in mind that deadheading removes any hips that would form later. You may not want to prune once-bloomers until after their hip display for this reason. Some repeat bloomers, such as Rugosa Roses, produce hips and blooms at the same time. This attractive display may appeal to you and you may not want to deadhead them. Repeat bloomers can be deadheaded until August or so, and then allowed to develop hips after their last flower display.

Other summer grooming includes pruning for maintenance (to keep a larger bush within bounds, or to keep roses from encroaching into a walkway, for example), pruning for overall shape to keep the bush looking balanced, and to remove any poor branching connections. You may also want to remove any aborted buds that have failed to open due to rain. Always remember to make clean pruning cuts with a sharpened blade and to periodically disinfect pruners between cuts if you are removing diseased branches.

Prune for Shape

Prune for Shape
(remove poor branching patterns)

Remember that large-blooming rose varieties need a sturdier cane to support the weight of the flower. If you don't prune back far enough on the stem, the new growth will be too weak to support the bloom, and you will end up with a bent cane whose flower is looking at the ground. Instead of pruning back to the first mature leaflet, you can cut farther down the stem to force stout new growth. Don't prune out the entire cane, however; it is good practice to leave at least (2) mature leaflets on the stem when deadheading.

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.

Pruning Roses Videos

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