How to Prune Roses: An Ultimate Guide

Many flower gardeners love roses, but struggle to maintain them. Roses have acquired the bad rap of being delicate, hard to grow, difficult to maintain and disease- and pest-susceptible. Because of this poor description, many gardeners are fearful of the rose. It will take too much work, you have to be an expert and they probably won’t survive. But today, there are so many types of roses, and some are no more difficult to grow than any other shrub in your yard. In general, the floribunda and shrub roses are the easiest to grow. However, rose breeders have been hybridizing new roses that are more disease-resistant and easier to care for. Every class of rose has some easy to grow choices.

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Before getting started, be sure to do some research. If you see a garden with some beautiful roses, talk to the gardener. Ask what variety they are growing and what the biggest problem is. In some areas, it may be related to weather, or it could be a specific pest or disease. The more you know before you choose and plant your roses, the better able you are to take preventative steps immediately. Another resource could be a local garden club. They know who among them has the best rose gardens. Of course, any botanical garden has a rose garden and they also are usually willing to answer questions–or they may even offer classes.

So, now your roses have grown well and your rose plants are ready for their first pruning. Don’t be afraid. It is almost impossible to kill a rose by over-pruning. A bigger mistake most beginners make is to under-prune. That won’t hurt your plant, but it probably won’t look as good as it could. Remember, this is a living plant. It wants to survive and thrive. Keep in mind if you are a beginner at rose pruning, you are learning and will get better every season. Here are a few tools you will need for pruning:

pruning rose bushes

  • Gloves. You need a good pair of gloves, preferably leather. Rose bush branches are covered with thorns and normal cotton gloves will provide no protection. The longer the gloves, the better. There are gloves made for working with roses that are long enough to cover your elbows. If you have to make do with shorter gloves, wear a jacket or shirt that has heavy enough fabric to offer protection. Denim would be a good choice.
  • Shears. This will be your main tool for pruning. A bypass blade is the best as it gives a clean cut and won’t crush the remaining end of the cane. This will minimize the opportunity for disease to get a foothold on the cane.
  • Loppers. This long-handled tool will allow you to cut in the interior of the rose without getting “bit” by the thorns. This tool is also essential when dealing with a mature rose bush. The canes can become quite large and difficult to cut with a hand tool. The lopper gives the extra torque needed to cut through thicker canes.
  • Sharpener. Whether you have a sharpening wheel or you use a handheld sharpener, don’t forget to use it. Keeping your blades sharp will minimize the force needed to cut through a branch and it will assure a clean cut.
  • Disinfectant. You should use disinfectant regularly on your tool blades, but especially if you know you have used your tools on an infected plant. Disinfectant will assure that you don’t spread the disease to the healthy plant you prune next.

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A basic pruning cut should always be made above an outward facing bud. The bud is a little harder to see in the fall and winter compared to the spring when the bud starts to swell. Look for the leaf scar where the leaf was growing last season and right above it is the bud. Make the cut at a 45-degree angle away from the bud. 

Fall Pruning

Fall pruning of roses is a somewhat controversial topic. Some gardeners feel pruning should only be done in the spring, while others believe in fall pruning. Probably a combination of both is best. At least pruning any dead, broken or diseased branches should be done in fall. 

Pruning roses in fall, especially in the northern part of the country, is preparation for the dormant period of winter. Make sure you prune late enough that your pruning doesn’t stimulate the plant to send out tender shoots that can’t survive in winter. Start by removing any remaining leaves or flowers from the plant. This allows you to clearly see all the branches and make pruning decisions.

closeup shears cutting rose shoot

Next, remove any damaged branches or diseased branches. These are easy to see and they have to go. Be sure that any diseased branches are removed down the cane far enough to be in a healthy cane. If there is a darker color in the cut edge, cut again lower down on the cane. That color could indicate the leading edge of the disease, and if you leave it, it will continue down the cane. The cut edge should be all white or pale green. Once you have removed all the diseased and damaged canes, look for any long spindly canes. These will be whipped around in the winter wind and could damage stronger canes. The rule of thumb is to remove all canes that are thinner than a pencil. 

All the pruning you did up to now was obvious and necessary. The next stage will require some decisions. Look for any canes that are crossing over each other or rubbing against each other. This will cause scarring and could be an opening for disease to enter your rose. Decide if one or both should be removed. Remove any that have already been damaged, but if you are debating on the second branch, leave it for now. You have a second chance with spring pruning. If you live up North, you may have to contend with winter kill, so being conservative with pruning in the fall is justified. Remember to maintain the basic vase shape with an open center to allow good air circulation and allow winter wind to blow through with minimal impact on the rose.

The final fall pruning step is to cut the height of the rose back about one-third. This will help to prevent root lift due to the pressure of the wind. After you finish this last step, it is essential that you clean up all the debris. This removes any of the diseased material from the remaining healthy plant and also any pest that may be lurking to winter over in the debris. Once everything is cleaned up, you can add winter protection if needed in your grow zone.

fall and spring pruning

Spring Pruning

After the last frost date for your grow zone and when you can see the buds starting to swell on your roses, it is time to spring prune. If you live in a zone where winter rose care includes protection of the graft site with soil or straw, this should be gradually removed prior to pruning.

Whether you did a fall pruning or not, follow the instructions for fall pruning now. Again, prune any broken or damaged branches from wind damage or heavy snow load. It isn’t unusual for there to be some winter dieback in the northern areas with more severe low temperatures. Prune the rose to remove all winter kill. 

The rest of the pruning is done to retain the shape of the rose bush and encourage growth. For most roses, the goal is to have six to eight strong healthy canes remaining after pruning. Floribundas and shrub roses will have more branches naturally. The final height of the roses after pruning is usually 18-24 inches tall. This will produce fewer blooms but larger blooms. If you want more blooms and don’t mind that they are a little smaller, allow your rose to be a little taller.

climbing red roses on wall

Pruning Climbing Roses

Pruning climbing roses is very different from other roses. Not only is pruning necessary, but you will need to train your rose to grow in the direction you want.

The canes of climbing roses are long, so be sure to wear protective gloves and arm protection. Start by removing any canes that are sticking straight out from the bush. This will allow you to get closer to the bush without getting stuck by thorns. Also, remove any wayward branches that you won’t want to use. 

Next, inspect the remaining canes for damage and disease. Remove any broken or dead wood and any diseased branches. Also, look for canes that are crossing or rubbing each other. Those spots could be the site for disease to gain a foothold. You should be left with healthy main canes ready to be trained into position. Main canes are canes that you can follow all the way back to the base of the plant.

The flowers on your climbing rose will come on the lateral branches. To encourage your plant to have a full profusion of flowers, the main canes need to be trained in a horizontal position. If you allow the canes to grow straight up, the only blooms will be at the ends of the canes. Attach your rose canes to the supporting structure (trellis, porch rail, fence) using cloth strips, covered wire or even zip ties. The cane should be loosely attached to allow for growth and some movement in the wind, but tight enough to keep it in place. 

The final pruning is of these lateral branches which should be pointing upward. Any branches that are pointing down or out will want to grow upward and will actually curl up as they grow. This gives an unattractive appearance to your plant, so remove any lateral branches that point down or out. What you should have is a long main cane trained into a horizontal position with numerous lateral branches that all point up or vertically. Prune these lateral branches back to two buds. These will form two branches instead of one and give a fullness to your rose with lots of blooms.

As always, a good cleanup after pruning is essential. This one step can prevent problems later. Be especially meticulous if you have removed any diseased materials. You don’t want to leave behind anything that could reinfect your healthy roses.

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Pruning Groundcover Roses

Groundcover roses need very little pruning. Most of the time, pruning is done to maintain the shape and to keep it within the space allotted. Early spring, when the buds begin to swell, is the best time to prune. 

Start by removing any dead or damaged canes. Also, remove any canes that are growing vertically rather than horizontally. Prune strong canes back by one-third. The lateral shoots can be pruned to two buds. If your roses have become overgrown and unmanageable, consider a hard pruning. Cut your roses to about eight inches off the ground. This should stimulate vigorous new growth.

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Pruning Old Garden Roses

There are some roses, mostly heritage roses, that need special consideration when pruning. These roses bloom only once a season and the blooms are on last year’s canes. If you prune them in the spring, you will be removing all the flower buds. Wait until after the bloom to prune.

Learn More About The Different Types of Roses

As you can tell, pruning roses is not as intimidating as you may have thought. Just take it step by step and be confident that you will not harm your rose. Every year, you will learn more and it won’t be long before gardeners will come to you for advice about how to grow and care for roses.


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