Pruning is an important part of rose care and can sometimes seem daunting to new gardeners. It is not hard to learn, and the results are well worth the effort!


Pruning is about more than just looks. It also improves the health of the rose bush, prevents disease, and encourages better and more flowering. There are different pruning strategies for different times of the year, but the goal is always to open up the plant to provide better circulation and to prevent fungal growth.


At Heirloom Roses, we use the acronym PRUNE to remember the basic pruning process. This method applies to the most popular garden roses such as Hybrid Teas, Shrubs, and Floribundas, but Climbers and Ramblers require more specialized techniques.


To prune Hybrid Teas, Shrubs, and Floribundas, follow these steps:

P - PREPARE THE PLANT

  • Cut the plant back to about waist height so you can work safely

R - REMOVE ALL BROKEN, DEAD, DYING, OR DISEASED WOOD

  • Branches that look dry, shriveled or black should be removed as they will no longer produce new growth. The healthy canes will be brown or green and firm.
  • Remove canes that are crossing or rubbing, as they will create weak spots.

U - UNDERSTAND THE PLANT

  • Know what type of rose bush you are pruning, and how you want the bush to look as it grows out.
  • Shape the plant with this future growth in mind.
  • Make final cuts at a 45-degree angle and about ¼ inch above outward-facing bud eyes.

N - NOTHING LEFT BEHIND

  • Clean up all cuttings, dead leaves, and other debris from around the plant. Do not compost as it could spread pathogens.
  • Leaving the area as clean as possible will minimize the growth of diseases.

E - ENJOY YOUR ROSES

  • That’s it! Enjoy your hard work!
  • If you want to enjoy some cut roses, cut the stem right above the first five-leaflet leaf under the flower and immediately place the cut stem into a clean bucket of lukewarm water.

 

A Detailed Look at Pruning


Whether you are deadheading blooms during the summer or performing your annual spring cutback, it is important to consider how a rose grows. How you prune a particular rose will always be the same. Even a beginner gardener can prune well!  Roses, unlike other plants, can send new shoots out of old wood. An older own-root rose can be rejuvenated by cutting it right to the ground, and it will still produce new shoots. This means that even a novice pruner would have a hard time killing a rose bush by pruning. 


We know you can do this. Each time you practice pruning, you will get better!


Let’s take a deep dive into proper pruning methods.


WHERE TO MAKE A PRUNING CUT

  • Pruning cuts should always be made just above a bud eye. A "bud eye" is the area on the stem where branching occurs. In the summer, it's easy to figure out where to prune, just cut right above a set of mature leaves.
  • On roses, there is always a dormant bud where leaves attach to the stem. 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.

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


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

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


HOW TO CUT

  • When you decide where to make your first cut, make a slanted cut just above an outward-facing bud eye. It is important to choose an outward-facing bud so new growth is directed away from the center of the plant.
  • Cutting at a slant helps water run off of the wound, which prevents water from collecting on the end of canes and possibly causing damage due to moisture accumulation, as well as being more aesthetically appealing. 
  • After making this cut, the rose will direct its growth to the closest bud, sending out a new terminal shoot. 
  • It isn’t necessary to put anything on the pruning wound. However, you may apply Elmer's Glue-All over the cut if rose cane borers are a problem-pest in your area.

THINGS TO LOOK FOR WHEN PRUNING


DEADWOOD

  • Dieback is common in roses and occurs when a pruning cut has been made in the middle of a branch and not at the bud eye. Any portion of the branch left between the pruning cut and the next bud eye will die back.
  • Deadwood is typically brown in color but can also be black if damaged by frost or winter cold.
  • The rose will attempt to quarantine dieback and create a breakpoint between healthy and dead tissue. Since dying tissue may be advancing down the stem, it is always recommended to prune deadwood out at any time of the year.
  • Cut the stem until you see healthy tissue that is pure white or light green.


DAMAGED OR DISEASED WOOD

  • Damaged areas are common in crossing branches and are a result of wind causing thorns to rub across adjacent canes. Damaged areas can also occur when top-heavy branches snap in stormy weather.
  • Diseased branches usually involve a type of stem canker or lesions from fungal diseases like black spot or downy mildew. These should be removed and destroyed promptly to prevent spreading.

Example of deadwood and necrotic tissue advancing down the rose stem

Example of winter freeze damage



Damaged canes can provide an entryway for pathogens and insect attacks.

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


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


This plant is too congested in the center.

An example of good pruning that results in an open center to allow air to circulate


SEASONAL ROSE PRUNING


We recommend pruning most of your roses in the spring and the fall, with the exception of once-blooming roses, which should be pruned once, just after flowering. 


FALL PRUNING

In the fall, prune to prevent wind breakage, whipping, and scarring by long canes. Watch your roses on a windy day to see 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. Also, remove any crossing branches for the same reason.

Prune out crossing branches

Prune out all branches smaller than a pencil in diameter

Pruning long canes will prevent the possibility of the roots being loosened as a result of strong winds or freeze/thaw cycles. 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.

 

Prune late enough in the growing season so that pruning will not stimulate new tender growth that could be damaged by an early freeze. Be careful not to over-prune in the fall. Your goal is to reduce the overall height of the plant by 1/3 and thin the center out slightly to accommodate stronger wind gusts.

Taller canes securely tied to support on this winter-pruned Climbing Rose.


SPRING PRUNING

The goal of spring pruning is to rejuvenate roses with a hard annual pruning. This is the time to prune to shape and to clean out deadwood and weak canes. Spring is the time to correct 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. 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 inches or larger), it should be removed.


We recommend for most rose bushes to leave 6 to 8 strong, healthy canes. This is ideal to produce a full, 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 to 24 inches. 


The shorter you prune, the fewer blooms you will have, but the blooms will be larger. Leaving taller canes will produce smaller blooms in more abundance. 


Spring pruning is really dependent on the weather. California growers typically spring prune in January. Most people in the Pacific Northwest prune their roses in either late February or early March. Midwest gardeners 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.


Spring Rose Pruning: Remove all dead or diseased wood. Retire old wood to invigorate the plant. Select 6 to 8 of the strongest canes for the new season's growth, Reduce overall height to 18 to 24 inches.


SUMMER PRUNING


Deadheading will prevent seed hip formation, encourage new blooms, and keep the rose attractive. Remove the spent blooms by making your pruning cut down the cane, just above an outward-facing set of mature leaflets of 5 to 7 leaves in number. If you prune back to an immature leaflet with only 3 leaves, you will not get any new growth or re-bloom.


Floribunda or Hybrid Musk roses that bloom in clusters present 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. 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. Some gardeners like this display and may choose not to deadhead them. Do whatever most appeals to your preference. Repeat bloomers can be deadheaded until August, and then allowed to develop hips after their last flower display.

Other summer grooming includes pruning to keep a larger bush within its bounds, pruning to shape, and pruning to remove poor branching connections. You may also want to remove balled 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 (remove poor branching patterns)

Always remember to make clean pruning cuts with a sharpened blade and to periodically disinfect pruners between cuts if you are removing diseased branches.

 

Remember that large-blooming rose varieties need sturdier canes 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 will bend the cane towards 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. It is a good idea to leave at least two mature leaflets on the stem when deadheading.


SPECIAL PRUNING 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 blooms it produces. Once-bloomers should only be pruned immediately after they finish flowering (generally around mid-July). If you prune too early 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

If you desire a hedge, roses should be planted closer together than normally and should be treated as a unit. Prune for an even growth production.


Roses in Pots 

Prune these the same way as those in the ground, keeping the bush trimmed so it doesn’t snag anyone walking past.


Roses that Colonize 

This group, including some Gallicas and a few Centifolias, produces new growth from the roots and spread out to cover a large area. Instead of pruning at the soil level, just use a shovel and dig up the extra growth. Share with your friends or plant in new locations of your own garden. 


This is how many roses, such as ‘Harison’s Yellow’,  were transported from one part of the country to another in the early days of wagon trains. 


Groundcover Roses  

These roses 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. 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 that is 3- to 4-feet tall or more if you have room. Hybrid Musks tolerate severe pruning if space is limited.


Miniature Roses 

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 year.