Pruning Roses 101

by Nanette Londeree, Consulting Rosarian

There seems to be a lot of mystery surrounding rose pruning, as well as lots of “rules” to follow in order to do it correctly. If I have learned anything over the last decade of pruning hundreds of roses, it is that roses are very forgiving. If you cut too high, too low, at an inward facing bud rather than an outward facing one, in the long run, it really will not make a lot of difference. If the resulting growth does not grow in the fashion or direction you desire, cut it again to correct it. Once you realize that there is not too much one can do wrong, it makes the whole job much easier.

A few lessons learned by this rosarian (the hard way):

  1. Do not prune old roses (once bloomers) during winter . The blooms on the old roses are produced on current growth. If you prune them during winter, you are pruning your spring flowers away!
  2. Do not prune newly planted roses – they need to get established before you remove any growth (other than dead wood).
  3. Prune first year roses (those you have grown for one season) lightly. They may not have developed a lot of top growth the first season, and need all their canes to continue to thrive.

Now for a few general pruning tips:

  1. Invest in a good pair of shears and keep them oiled, adjusted and very sharp! Do not use anvil-type shears because they bruise the bark. If you use loppers, make sure they are also the pass-through type. A small pruning saw is a necessity for large canes and for getting into places that cannot be reached with shears or loppers.
  2. Wear good, strong, durable gloves. They should be sturdy but flexible. It is also beneficial to use gloves with gauntlets that cover the forearm. Wear hard finish clothing such as denim and wear long sleeves.
  3. Remove every leaf from newly pruned bushes; diseases tend to carry over in winter on old green leaves left on the bush. Once pruning is done, it is an excellent time to do a dormant spray; this will reduce insects and disease in the upcoming season.
  4. Pay attention to where you are placing your hands. Roses don’t stick you; you stick yourself on the roses! Experienced pruners rarely get severely scratched but it is a good idea to check to see if you have had a tetanus shot in the last 10 years.
  5. Start at the bottom of the bush but look to the top before cutting. Do not let the “decisions” about what to cut make you tense or slow you down.
  6. The cane will tend to grow in the direction the top bud is pointing – cut to an outside bud on uprights bushes and to an inside bud on sprawling bushes. Cut about 1/4″ away from the bud, If cut closer, the new hygrowth may break off. If cut longer, an unsightly stub will remain.
  7. Cut back to good healthy wood. Discolored pith (interior of cane) may indicate frost or disease damage, and while such a cane may bloom, it will usually die back come summer. At best it is a poor framework for future growth.
  8. Remove about one-third to one-half of the volume of the plant, leaving healthy canes, and the center of the plant open.
  9. Large canes can be cut easily with sharp shears if they are bent slightly away from the cutting edges of the shears.
  10. Do not worry if the cut cane bleeds; there is no evidence to show that it is harmful to either roses or grapevines. It is not necessary to seal cuts.
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