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.
Pruning roses can seem tricky if these are new additions to your flower beds but it is actually pretty easy and totally worth it as pruning will improve the internal airflow of your plant, boosting overall plant health, giving you better flower quality and yield, not to mention allowing you to tidy up the bush to the desired shape to suit your garden scheme.
Plant expert, Debbie Neese from Lively Root (opens in new tab) notes how you should 'Prune for good air circulation, shape, and size of the blossoms'.
'When planting your roses, shape them and leave them until they mature in two or three years'. It's also majorly important to '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' She continues. 'Prune roses that bloom once a year right after they bloom. They will bloom on old wood the following year.'
When should you 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.
Whether you need to prune your roses ahead of winter really depends on the cultivar of rose you have and whether it gives a single flush of flowers through the year or if it is repeat-flowering so be sure to double-check.
How to prune roses: step-by-step
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.
Reducing the size of bush roses by about one-third, giving ground cover roses a light trim, and cutting back climbing roses after flowering to suit the structure they are covering may seem like a lot, but it will give the plant a clean and simple structure which will ultimately encourage fuller re-growth. In all, you want to achieve a balanced-looking plant with both older and younger wood.
There's a huge variety of roses out there, and therefore a few different methods for specific cultivars. What we cover can be applied to most roses, even the ones that you don't know the name of.
You will need:
1. A pair of pruning shears: we tend to use Felco's Model 12 secateurs (opens in new tab)
2. You may need loppers (opens in new tab) for more established roses
4. Steel-toed boots – I like Dickies but Amazon has a good selection including Cat and Timberland (opens in new tab)
5. Safety glasses (opens in new tab)
4. A pot or compostable garden refuse bags for the cuttings
1. Asses the shape of your rose
First off you want to assess the shape of your rose and determine how to create a healthy spread of stems with pruning and tidying. You want to be left with an open shape, about five main branches if working with a shrub, perhaps less if you have a hybrid tea rose but if established, it should be easy to determine the core stems holding the structure of your plant.
Try to identify whether it was pruned last season or not – if it wasn't yours to keep – and this will help with knowing how hard to prune.
2. Start with the 3 ds
When you're pruning a rose you want to start with the three D's: anything dead, dying or diseased. That means deadheading roses, removing any blackened branches and yellowed leaves, this will take off a significant portion of your plant already.
Be sure to use clean, sharp secateurs or loppers (opens in new tab) for bigger branches. And keep safety in mind with gardening gloves, steel-toed boots (opens in new tab) and safety glasses (opens in new tab) also.
When it comes to your pruning technique, always prune above outward-facing buds so that you direct the rose's growth externally for a beautiful more open floral display.
You also always want to cut at 45º, pointing away from buds to ensure water and debris runs off the plant as opposed to pooling inside buds and causing rot or disease. Neese notes how important this is 'Always cut at a 45° angle above the outside bud with sterilized, sharp bypass pruners.' Clean tools are essential to stop spreading disease among your plants.
3. Prune crossing or inward growing stems
Next, you want to chop off any stems that are crossing or that have become leggy and that are growing inwards. It may seem radical but by keeping these small branches will waste the plant's energy which you want to conserve so that it can instead be used to create healthier branches and flowers in spring and summer.
4. Reassess the shape
Whether you're pruning roses or a shrub, taking a step back and looking at your work after a few steps will help you evaluate the shape and determine your next steps.
5. Tidy up
Once you've seen what's left to do, ensure you've snipped off any suckers in the ground – these will sap a lot of your plant's energy – and do any last bits of tidying, using your secateurs for more precision, to leave your rose plant with that gorgeous open shape that may look sparse now, but come spring and summer, will grow and flower beautifully.
How to cut back roses during their growing season
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. You should aim to remove spent flowers and snip off disease stems throughout the growing season. This is considered more of a ’tidy’ and 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. A midsummer tidy-up will help reinvigorate tired roses and encourage a second flush in autumn with repeat bloomers.
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. You should also leave wild roses alone.
For more specific pruning advice on each type of rose refer to the RHS website (opens in new tab), which lists the steps for different types of roses.
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.
As mentioned, don't prune wild roses, such as rugosas; they need no annual pruning, simply cut away the dead branches from the underside of the shrub every few years.
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.'