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Although the different types and varieties of roses have different pruning needs, most require only light pruning to keep them in shape and encourage vigorous growth. I cover the main points of how and when to prune roses here, plus some specific tips for the different kinds of roses after over 20 years of pruning roses myself. I worked in the family nursery for almost 20 years and potted up, pruned and sold thousands of roses so I know a thing or two about roses plus, I use to maintain large rose beds commercially through our garden maintenance business.
Reasons to prune your rose bushes
- Remove dead or diseased parts or those that are dying back.
- Encourage new growth.
- Shape your rose.
- Bring an overgrown rose bush back under control and rejuvenate it from the base.
- Create more space within the plant for increased air circulation, which helps prevent diseases.
When to prune roses
The best time to prune roses is in the spring, just as the plants come out of their dormant period. Wait until the last big frost has passed, usually in March. The exception to this is climbers roses which need to be pruned back late autumn or winter. You can learn more about pruning climbing roses here
You can then prune your roses again in the autumn. This is when you cut back the longer stems that are in the way to prevent them from breaking off in the cold winter months. Also, cut off any branches that are currently rubbing together.
You need to be selective about pruning at this time as it stimulates new growth. And you don’t want new buds developing as you head into the cold months.
And cut off any diseased or dead branches or other parts of the plant the moment you notice them, whatever the time of the growing season. You need to get rid of infected or infested bits of your rose bush quickly to avoid the problem spreading within the tree and to other plants.
If you want to just prune once, this is usually what I do on larger beds. Then you can just prune them back to about 3 buds above ground level in spring just as the beds start to form. This is what we did on the nursery for over 20 years.
How to prune roses in general
Here are some general instructions for pruning rose trees.
Sterilise your cutting tool (usually secateurs), even if you don’t spot any diseased branches on your plant. Re-clean the tool between cuts. This will help prevent the spread of diseases from parts of the plant to another or to a different rose.
How to cut a stem
Make a single cut; don’t hack at the plant. A clean cut with a sharp tool doesn’t leave a wound that’s open to pests and disease. Cut slightly above a bud, maybe around 5mm above and slope downwards away from it, so water doesn’t collect on the cut and bud. If you can’t find a bud to cut above, just cut the stem to the appropriate height, maybe around 30cm above the ground. Many people are scared of cutting roses back too hard but they always respond well to hard pruning, we cut them back to almost ground level in the nursery.
Look for dead or diseased stems, or those starting to experience dieback. Remove these by cutting into the healthy part of the stem and branch. Burn these dead or diseased stems if possible to avoid spreading the infection. Don’t put them in a compost bin, especially if it’s a home compost bin you use in your garden after it’s rotted down.
Cut away stems that are crossing over each other at the centre top of the rose bush. This opens up the air flow and helps prevent diseases. If stems are rubbing against each other, remove some of them also.
Remove some of the older growth if your rose plant has lots of new and healthy foliage and growth and remove stems that may not have flowered as well making way for new stems.
Cut back remaining stems to 15-20cm, while keeping the spherical shape beloved by rose bushes.
Remove any suckers at ground level from the base of the plant and up the stem.
Instructions for specific types of roses
Shrub roses make good hedges so you might be pruning the entire length of the hedge at once. These roses are usually larger than modern roses and have thornier stems, so wear thick gloves. They are often sold as old English roses.
Prune shrub roses after they flower in the growing season and/or in late winter/early spring, that is, February and March. These roses generally flower on old wood, so don’t cut off all the older branches of the bushes. Leave some on, along with the strong new growth.
If your shrub rose blooms repeatedly during the summer and autumn, deadhead the spent blooms to encourage new ones to develop.
Bush roses include floribundas and hybrid tea roses. The difference between these is that hybrid tea roses have large flowers and floribundas have clusters of flowers.
Bush roses do need somewhat careful pruning as they become messy and tangled if they’re left alone. If this happens, flowers won’t develop well and they become very prone to diseases.
Prune bush roses in late winter to early spring, after the hard frosts have passed. Start pruning these in the usual way by cutting out dead and diseased stems, those that are crowding together and those that are crossing each other.
For hybrid tea roses, cut the strongest shoots to four or six buds from the base. This is the point where last year’s growth started and is about 10cm to 15cm from the base. Cut the less healthy stems back to about 5cm to 10cm from the base. You can get rid of any wood that’s over three years old.
As for floribundas, cut down the strongest roots to within 25cm to 30cm of the base. Prune the weakest roots back to closer to the ground. You can encourage stronger growth from the base by cutting back some older stems to just 5cm or so from the soil level.
As I have already mentioned, I have a separate guide on how to prune climbing roses. Please read How to prune climbing roses to get the best out of them for the details.
After pruning your rose, give the plant some water and fertiliser. Even mulch it to help it to recover from the shock. I like to mulch with well-rotted farm manure in spring. They love it.
Wear thick gloves that go up to your elbow, even for roses without thick thorns. You can get rose pruning gloves.
Sanitise/sterilise your cutting tool between plants and even between cuts if you see pests or diseases on your rose. Practice safe rose hygiene, they are prone to diseases so we need to do everything we can to at least try to prevent it.
If you don’t prune your rose after it flowers, wait until the following spring.