How to Prune Roses

Illustration depicting the right way to prune a rose bush

Catherine Song / The Spruce 

Pruning roses can be intimidating to gardeners since cutting back beautiful growth seems counterintuitive and can be downright painful if the plant is unruly. But, the practice actually creates a vital plant, as pruning encourages new growth, removes old, dead wood, helps shape the plant, and reduces the chances of fungal disease by opening the rose plant up to airflow.

While becoming an accomplished rose pruner takes time and practice, don't let that deter you; skilled gardeners agree that it's very hard to kill a rose bush and most mistakes will grow out quickly. Plus, it is better to make mistakes in the learning process than to let you roses grow rampant, creating a big mess in your garden down the road.

When to Prune Roses

Timing your pruning is determined by the class of the rose plant and the hardiness zone in which it grows. Generally speaking, most rose pruning is done in the spring before blooms start to show. Watch the leaf buds on your rose plant. When they begin to swell and take on a pink or reddish hue, it's time to prune. Timing it right is critical, as it's best to prune the plant before the buds break open and right after hard frosts have ended in your region. However, certain roses are finicky about pruning time and prefer to be cut back before breaking dormancy.

What You'll Need

Equipment/Tools

  • Thick gardening gloves that cover your lower wrists
  • Long-sleeved shirt or canvas jacket
  • Canvas pants or jeans

Materials

Instructions

The most obvious areas to prune on rose bushes are the dead, woody remains of flowering stalks. These dead canes may have snapped under the weight of snow or simply succumbed to a harsh winter. The less obvious canes to prune include those that are spindly or have shoots that extend well beyond your desired growing region. The ultimate goal is to maintain a "v" formation, or vase shape, between several, evenly spaced major canes that sprout from the ground.

  1. Begin Pruning From the Ground Up

    In the spring, take inventory of your rose bush, noting its overall health and shape. Then go low, pruning off dead canes at the base and opening up the center of the plant to allow light and air circulation.

  2. Remove Broken, Dead, and Diseased Wood

    Follow old wood down the cane to a location that looks healthy (or green). Cut it at a 45-degree angle, taking care to expose the white flesh inside. If the flesh is not white, cut lower until you reach healthy flesh.

  3. Remove Twiggy Canes

    Remove canes that are thinner than a pencil. These canes will grow gangly and produce very little blooms.

  4. Remove Sucker Growth Below the Graft

    A sucker is any new vertical growth that extends from the main canes. Suckers can also pop out of the ground. Suckers will contain no flowers at all or flowers that are inferior to those growing from grafted branches (canes that have fused together). Trim these at the ground or below the spot where the main branches fuse.

  5. Prune New Growth

    Prune new growth to shape the plant to your desired look. Make clean cuts at a 45-degree angle, about 1/4 inch above a bud that is facing toward the outside of the plant.

  6. Seal Cuts With White Glue (Optional)

If cane borers are a problem in your area, seal any major cuts with white glue.

Rose Pruning Tips

Unless your species of rose naturally produces red canes, dead branches can usually be spotted by their black or reddish-black appearance. Dead canes can also be yellow or splotchy in color, containing almost no green.

If you don't know what type of rose bush you have, watch the plant throughout its growing season. If it blooms on the new growth, prune it next year while the plant is still dormant or just about to break dormancy. If it blooms early on last year's canes, don't prune it until after flowering complete.

Some roses, like alba, centifolia, Damask, and gallica, only bloom once, producing flowers on old wood. These varieties don't require much pruning at all. Simply, remove dead or thin wood and to shape the plants after flowering is complete.

For maintenance during blooming season, deadhead blooms to a strong node and rip out all suckers that form at the base.

Working With Roses

The proper pruning specifications vary depending on the type and classification of your rose bush. Make sure you understand the particularities of your rose's variety before you prune.

Roses That Bloom Once on New Growth

Modern roses like hybrid tea, grandiflora, and floribundas bloom best on the current season's growth. Prune hard in the spring (one-half to two-thirds of the plant's height) and remove all old woody stems. Create an open vase shape with the remaining canes by removing the center stems and any crossing branches. Leave three to five healthy canes evenly spaced around the plant, cut at various lengths, to encourage continuous blooming.

Roses That Bloom Once on Old Wood

Ramblers like the "Malvern Hills" and "Snow Goose" rose must be pruned to remove winter damage and dead wood and shaped to keep their size in check. Ramblers bloom only once and can be pruned right after flowering, all the way back to 2 to 3-inch-long canes if you wish. They quickly regrow, so don't worry, as you won't lose any flowers the following season.

Everbloomers

Shrub rose bushes, like the Knock Out varieties and "The Fairy," are repeat bloomers, flowering on mature—but not old—woody stems. Leave them unpruned to increase vigor in the first two years, and then remove one-third of the oldest canes, in addition to any dead, diseased, or dying canes.

Climbers, like the William Baffin rose, may repeat bloom, as well. Prune this bush early to remove winter damage and deadwood. Then, prune again after flowering to shape the bush and keep its size in check. Remove old and weakened long canes, as needed.