How to prune roses: step-by-step

Pruning roses needs to be done at least once a year, in time for spring, to ensure healthy regrowth and a gorgeous display. Here's everything you need to know about when and how to prune and cut back these gorgeous flowers.

A woman pruning a rose bush while wearing gardening gloves
(Image credit: OlgaPonomarenko / Getty)

The rose, Rosa, is one of the most recognizable flowers grown in our gardens. Heavily petalled, bearing fragrant flowers and thorns (lots of thorns), whatever type of rose you have, it’s a stunning and hardy plant that will bloom year after year – provided, of course, that you know how to prune roses properly.

While they don’t require much upkeep – a sunny spot, moist but well-drained soil – roses do need to be cut back on occasion. Removing a significant portion of the previous year’s (or even two years') growth helps direct the rose's energy, making way for new growth and for an even more stunning display come spring and summer. It’s an annual ‘event’ shall we call it, and in essence, pruning is a process of renewal that will allow your rose(s) to bloom bigger and better than ever. 

There's a huge variety of cultivars out there, perfect for all types of rose garden and therefore, there are a few different pruning methods to consider. Our step-by-step will advise you more specifically on how to prune ‘English’ shrub roses that are repeat-flowering, but we also have a few tips for more unusual cultivars.

A close-up of cutting a rose stem with sharp pruning shears at a 45-degree angle

(Image credit: Lex20 / Getty)

How to prune roses: step-by-step

Pruning roses can be confusing if these are new additions to your flower beds. Before we go into the detail of the how, when, and why, here are a few solid tips to get you started from plant expert at Lively Root (opens in new tab) Debbie Neese:

  • Remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches at any time of year
  • When planting your roses, shape them and leave them until they mature in two or three years
  • Always cut at a 45° angle above the outside bud with sterilized, sharp bypass pruners
  • Use the right equipment: sharp hand clippers (bypass) or best secateurs, heavy-duty loppers, pruning saw, leather gloves, or gauntlets that are long covering your wrist and arm
  • Prune roses that bloom once a year right after they bloom. They will bloom on old wood the following year
  • Prune for good air circulation, shape, and size of the blossoms

What is the best time to prune roses? 

You should prune roses between February and March. This is considered the dormant season, which is late winter. As it’s recommended that you wait until the final frost, you may need to prune closer to late March if you live in a climate with cold winters.

Gardener pruning a rose bush in the garden

(Image credit: Lex20 / Getty)

How do you prune roses for the winter?

You can prune roses at different times of the year, although this should be considered as more of a ’tidy’ and it’s usually best done in early winter. You may have heard of ‘deadheading’, which simply refers to removing spent flowers, and can be done throughout the flowering season. With deadheading, the main thing to remember is that you should always cut above a leaf – this way, you will get more fresh growth and more flowers. 

The exception is rambling roses. These finish all their flowering sometime in mid to late summer (think July or August), so you can safely prune them as soon as they've stopped producing new flowers. 

The benefits of rose pruning

Pruning roses will: 

  • Improve overall plant health;
  • Improve flower quality and yield;
  • Tidy up the bush to the desired shape;
  • Improve internal airflow.

roses in garden with outdoor table and chairs

(Image credit: Getty / Pierre Longnus)

How to prune roses: step-by-step

These are the tools you'll need when cutting back your roses:

The general rule with pruning roses is removing about a third of the plant in any one year. Don't worry – your rose plant will regrow during the active season, pruning it is simply a way to make sure it's healthy and balanced. These are the main steps for pruning your rose:

  1. Remove about a third of the main stems with sharp secateurs or shears
  2. Chop off any stems that are crossing
  3. Remove any stems that have blackened and didn't produce any fresh growth during the last season
  4. Trim off any branches that have become leggy or are growing inwards 
  5. Take out a central stem or two if your rose is looking a bit sparse

How to cut back roses

Cutting back refers to deadheading or light pruning during the active growing season – this prolongs the rose's flowering period and keeps diseases at bay:

  • Always prune above outward-facing buds so that your rose doesn't start growing inwards
  • Always cut at 45º, pointing away from buds – this prevents water from pooling inside buds and causing rot
  • Remove dead, damaged and diseased stems throughout the growing season

Pruning roses: what not to do

Most rose pruning mistakes are to do with incorrect timing. If you are pruning your rose in spring, Neese urges to 'avoid pruning too early after it comes out of dormancy and it's early in the spring season. Be sure you're past the last frost date since new growth will promote fresh tender leaves that can get nipped in a frost.' A rose that has been frost-bitten may get damaged and not produce any flowers that year.

At the same time, Neese explains that 'you don't want to prune too late in the season in cooler climates since the new growth won't have time to mature before the first frost of the winter.' So, don't prune your roses in the fall if your winter is guaranteed to be cold. You will confuse the plant – it will start producing new growth which can then get damaged during the winter. 

Do I have to prune roses? 

If all of this sounds like a lot to remember, you may be tempted to just leave your roses be. In fact, you may have heard some gardeners say that they don't prune their roses at all and still get great results. 

The trick here is to choose the correct variety of roses. According to Neese, if you don't want to prune, it's worth seeking out easy-care varieties like Knockout roses.' Knockout roses can be bought on Amazon (opens in new tab), among many other places, and these cultivars naturally grow in a neat way. However, Neese still prefers  'to keep them in optimum health by pruning in late winter while the plant is still dormant to ensure the dead, damaged, and diseased branches are not taking away from the healthy stems.'

If you don't prune it, 'eventually, the rose will get too bushy and have issues with pests and diseases if not pruning for air circulation. The shape may get lop-sided or unsightly if the shrub has dead spots.'

Finally, 'flowers won't be as robust and showy if the shrub isn't pruned.' In other words, pruning roses is well worth the effort. Having said this, if you're growing wild roses such as multi-flora and Rosa rugosa, you don't have to prune them at all. According to Stuart MacKenzie, Master Arborist and Expert at
Trees.com (opens in new tab), points out that they 'thrive when neglected.' 

Anna is Content Editor at Real Homes. She moved to the world of interiors from academic research in the field of English Literature and photography. She is the author of London Writing of the 1930s and has a passion for contemporary home decor and gardening. At Real Homes, she covers a range of topics, from practical advice to interior and garden design. 

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