How to Prune Roses

Spring pruning roses

Slowly, the days are getting longer, the world outside is getting a little greener, and sometimes I am even woken up by birdsong in the morning. It is as if the natural world is welcoming the approaching spring. This is also the right time to open your rose garden for the warmer seasons.

Knowing how to prune roses is an easily acquired skill that is imperative to healthy roses. And you will get plenty of practice because, unlike many other plants and shrubs, thriving roses need to be pruned many times throughout the year. It promotes new growth and makes it possible for you to train your shrubs into the shape you think looks best.

When do roses need to be pruned?

The first pruning of the year should usually come in early spring. It is important not to start too early. Pruning too early can cause some major damage if another hard freeze happens. When a rose cane is pruned, it promotes new growth by activating the growth hormones to kick in, which also pulls moisture to the end of the cane. If that deep freeze happens, the cane will likely die back quite a bit, or as previously stated, can kill the plant. Let’s not do that!

Once you have cut all of the deadwood out of your roses to start the year, it’s time to wait. Your roses will typically bloom for the first time around Memorial Day weekend. After these blooms start to die away, you will be ready to start your regular summer pruning. Depending on the types of roses and the health of your garden, this could be a weekly chore.

Many people call this weekly or bi-weekly pruning “deadheading”. The more you stay on top of this, the more blooms you will get. Of course, there are many factors that go into more blooms, other than pruning, but this article is about pruning. So, let’s stay focused!

It is generally best to stop deadheading in the fall, once it cools down and you are unlikely to get more new growth. Now it’s time to wait, once again.

You are waiting for final pruning of the season. Many people refer to this end of year pruning as “cutting back”. This typically happens around Thanksgiving, depending on the weather. It is advisable not to get too antsy and do this before it gets cold and will likely stay cold. Because if you cut back too soon and it warms back up, it can promote new growth, which we don’t want at this point in the year.  

When I say “cold” here, I mean once the lows at night hit around 28° for 3 or 4 nights in a row.

How to Protect Roses in the Winter gets into more detail of the entire process and the specifics on cutting back the different varieties of roses.

What needs to be cut off?

It is best to begin spring pruning by removing all remaining leaves. This allows you to see the structure of the bush and all its stems clearly. Taking away the leaves also makes sure that any pests that have been hiding in the foliage over winter are removed, too. Once you have an overview of the state of your shrubs, it is easy to see and decide what has to be cut away.

Canes that are visibly dead and diseased need to be cut away so they are not in the way of new, healthy growth. When cutting diseased canes, you want to prune the dieback to the healthy white pith. This means that the center of your cut should be white or green – if it is brown, you have to keep cutting until you reach the healthy center.

It is also important to prune out crossing stems. These have a tendency to rub together, which results in damage to the cane and opens the door to diseases. I usually cut out the less healthy of the 2 crossing canes or the one that is growing towards the center of the plant. It is best to keep the growth going outward, so the center of the plant gets plenty of airflow, once it starts filling out with new growth and leaves.

To make sure that your shrub keeps growing strong and healthy, it also makes sense to remove spindly, weak growth. Here, anything that is thinner than a pencil can be cut. You should also cut off poorly flowering old wood as well as old stubs that have not produced new shoots.

It might shock you how bare and naked your shrubs will look after the pruning session, but do not worry! You will be rewarded for your work with beautiful, fragrant flowers.

How to prune roses?

Now that you know what to cut, the next step is knowing how to cut it. This is an intimidating task for many gardeners, and it is understandable if you worry about accidentally cutting off too much or too little. There are, of course, as many pruning methods as there are types of roses. However, there are some things to be said that hold true for all kinds. Putting these tips into practice will soon teach you to recognize the right places and methods of pruning and you will already feel much more confident when the next pruning day arrives.

To find the right location for a cut you need to look for outward-facing bud eyes. Bud eyes are the dormant form of growth buds that will grow into new stems. They look like small swellings or bumps where a leaf would meet the cane. You simply have to take your direction as to the place and angle of pruning from these bud eyes and there is not much that can go wrong.

I recommend making the cut no less than one-quarter of an inch and no more than half an inch above a bud eye. The cut should slope downwards away from the bud at about a 45-degree angle. This makes sure that no water collects on the bud.

By cutting to outward-facing buds you are encouraging an open-centered shape so that your shrub grows in a v-shape, similar to the way flowers lie in a vase. When it comes to roses of spreading habit, you might want to prune some stems to inward-facing buds. This will promote a more upright growth. You can also prune your roses in a way that adheres to the layout of your garden.

If you want, for example, to direct growth away from a path, you cut above a bud facing opposite of the path. Similarly, you can prune roses in a way that directs them towards something, like a lattice or a fence. No two rose gardens are the same and you will soon learn what the best methods are to present your plants in their best light.

Pruning newly planted roses hard will encourage vigorous new shoots – this is true for all types of roses with the exception of climbing roses.

Some gardeners recommend sealing fresh cuts. This is something you can do if it makes you feel safe, but it is nothing I would worry about too much. Roses have a natural sealing mechanism and shortly after the pruning cells rush up to the exposed stem and seal the cut.

After pruning, clean up the area around your shrubs. All cut-off leaves and canes need to be taken away, otherwise, they are an invitation for pests and diseases. Then, feed the pruned roses with fertilizer and add a thick layer of mulch under the shrubs. Mulch conserves moisture, helps to keep the soil temperature down, and smothers weeds that would otherwise compete with your roses for moisture and nutrition. Fertilizing only needs to be done about 3-4 times per year.

What kind of equipment do I need?

Do not worry, there is not a lot of specialized equipment that is necessary. Basically, all you need are a good pruner and the right clothes.

There are a lot of different types of pruners on the market that can make choosing difficult. Most important is to make sure that you are working with bypass shears, not anvil blades. Bypass blades overlap and make a clean cut, whereas anvil blades meet and squeeze the stem between them, rather than cutting it off cleanly. This could lead to crushed or damaged canes. I recommend the Felco 2 pruners with the practical leather holster you can attach to your belt.

Some prefer to wear gloves for protection from the thorns. I typically forego the gloves because I have a better feel when deadheading. I sometimes end up donating some blood in the process, but a little suffering is worth the end result. I will, however, wear a good pair of leather gloves when I do the initial spring pruning and the winter cutback.

For larger canes that are difficult to reach or thicker, you will want to use loppers or a pruning saw.

For clean cuts, you need to keep your blades clean and sharp. For cleaning pruners, it is best to take them apart so you can reach all the dirt. You can first clean them with warm, soapy water and a small brush – you can use an old toothbrush for this. Wipe them dry afterward. If there are stubborn stains of rust, soil, or plant sap on the blades, you can remove them with steel wool or sandpaper.

Once the blades are really clean, you can start to sharpen them. You will only need to sharpen the blade with the beveled edge – this means the edge that is sloped and that does the actual cutting. Bypass pruners only have one beveled edge. Simply position your file or stone parallel to the beveled edge, put pressure on the outer edge of the blade, and file only in one direction, away from you.

It is important to not go back and forth. You will quickly be able to see how the blade becomes shiny and sharp again. I usually take the pruners apart once or twice per year to clean, grease, and sharpen.

Even though the task of pruning might seem daunting, I am sure that you will soon notice that it is a very rewarding thing to do. You are taking care of your flowers and make sure that they are healthy and look their best. This one day in spring lays the foundation for a worthwhile flowering season for you to enjoy.