It’s no wonder gardeners are intimidated by rose pruning instructions when terms like “secateurs” and “nodes” are thrown around without explanation or definition. Rose pruning on the surface seems too complicated and gardeners abandon the idea of growing roses, especially when they are already combatting the cold climate of the north or midwest. But the truly complicated methods were developed by rosarians whose objective is to produce very specific qualities in the blooms and stem length. Most gardeners just want to produce more flowers on a healthy plant, so pruning is pretty simple once you understand a few basic principles. And don’t worry about doing it “right”. When you first start pruning roses, if you don’t prune enough, you may not get as many blooms. If you prune too much, roses can take it! You will probably get more blooms, even if you haven’t produced the size or fullness you may prefer in the plant. And if it takes you more than 10 or 15 minutes to prune a rose bush, you are being much more careful than you need to be.
Most importantly, roses are pruned to keep them healthy. All canes that are dead, weak, damaged or diseased should be removed to prevent disease or fungus from entering the plant. Removing canes from the center of the rose bush will increase air circulation which will help prevent mildew and fungus. An open center also reduces the prime places insects prefer to live. Roses are also pruned to produce more blooms, or to produce a balance of blooms and foliage depending on the variety of rose and the gardener’s preference. And finally, roses may be pruned to maintain a specific overall size or shape.
When to Prune
The majority of rose pruning is accomplished in the spring whatever your objective is - clean up and thinning, shaping, or flower production. When is spring? That is pretty vague, and you have probably heard all kinds of recommendations as to when to prune - when the forsythia begin to bloom (not much forsythia around here), when the frost goes out, January, May... It all depends on where you live. A good guide is after the last hard frost, and the soil has begun to warm up, and the very early spring bloomers have begun to bloom (such as forsythia). Pruning encourages growth fairly quickly, so new shoots exposed to winter winds or late frost will be damaged. In the northern zones of the midwest, you probably pruned back your larger rose bushes to minimize winter damage as part of your winter protection. But as long as you do not remove your winter protection too soon, growth will not begin because the roots are kept cold. Leave your winter protection in place until the soil temperatures get warm enough to start growth on the earliest plants. In Minnesota that could be mid April to mid May, in Rhode Island it may be late April, in Missouri perhaps early April, late February or early march in North Carolina, ...you see how it’s hard to set a date. And perhaps winter is really hanging on in your part of the country and spring may come quite late. Be patient, when the ground gets warm, start removing your protection, then you can begin pruning. Just remember that pruning too early can be tragic, as late frost damage may set your plant back enough to seriously limit your blooming.
Tools for Pruning
A heavy pair of rose gloves is a good idea to protect you from the thorns. Long sleeves will help protect your arms when you are reaching in to cut inside the rose bush, or use elbow length gauntlet gloves. A good sharp rose pruner is essential. A bypass pruner is best for a clean cut. Bypass just means that the blades do not meet, they slide past each other just like a scissors. Usually one of the blades are curved, usually both. Rosarians call this pruner secateurs. They are strong enough to prune hard branches, but large old canes may need a fine tooth pruning saw or long handled loppers. A lopper is similar to a hand pruner, but with long handles to get more leverage on the thick branches, and a little larger blades. Clean the blades after every use to avoid spreading disease or fungus they may have come in contact with. To clean the tools, use hydrogen peroxide or diluted bleach or alcohol. Dipping is easy, or wipe down with the disinfectant on a clean cloth. The only other thing you need is something to seal the cuts to keep out disease and insects. Commercial sealers can be purchased specifically for this purpose, but Elmer’s white glue works just fine. Swipe a thin coat over the cut with your finger.
All cuts should be at a 45 degree angle 1/4 inch above a leaf bud or node that faces outward from the plant. A node is just the place on the stem where a leaf is attached. The pruner should be held with the cutting blade down. The top blade is stationary, when you squeeze the handles, the bottom cutting blade slides up to the stationary blade. Angling your cut down and away from a node will allow water to run off, rather than be trapped in a node. First completely remove all dead, dying or damaged canes. They will be shriveled or dark or black. Next remove any weak canes that are thinner than a pencil. Suckers, which are new plant shoots from the roots should never be cut, as several more suckers will be encouraged from the cut. Remove the soil to expose the sucker to it’s base and pull down and away from the root. On a grafted rose, suckers will not produce a plant that resembles your rose bush. It will produce whatever the hardy rootstock is. Own root roses generally will not produce suckers. Now you are ready to move on to shaping your rose bush and pruning to produce blooms. The instructions to proceed here varies based on the variety of rose bush you have.
Is my rose bush dead?
First, be patient. Sometime a rosebush that had a hard time with winter, or weathered a particularly harsh winter, will just be slow to start. It would be a shame to hard prune to the ground if the rosebush just need a little more time. If nearly everything else has already budded out and you see no sign of life yet, prune down to about six inches if you haven’t already. This will sometimes force growth in struggling canes. Wait at least a week, two if it is still pretty early in the season. If the canes are in fact dead, and it is an “own root” hardy rose bush, sprouts may come from the rootstock below the surface. Now you know the canes are dead and they should be completely removed down to the bud onion. This was the case with the explorer rose shown. A particularly long and hard winter killed it to the ground, it will regrow from the rootstock. If sprouts have appeared from the canes, prune to the growth buds that are showing life. If no life has appeared anywhere, prune all canes to the bud onion in another attempt to force growth from the rootstock. This rose did force new shoots after all the canes were cut way back. Then all the dead canes can be completely removed. If that fails, my guess is the bush was not hardy enough for your zone and/or you did not provide adequate winter protection. - - - Thought you might like to see how the rose did, so I have put a new picture below. Several weeks later it has grown nearly as large as it was last year, and blooming beautifully!
Final Spring Pruning Instructions by Rose Type:
Pruning Rugosa Roses
Prune primarily to shape or thin the plant, removing canes at the base to thin, or a portion of canes for shaping. The first year, they can be pruned down hard in the fall, basically sheared to 8-12”, to produce a fuller shrub. The more pruning you do, the less blooms you will have. If you prune after the last bloom, you will lose colorful hips for winter. If you don’t mind the bush getting very tall or large, skip final pruning altogether.
Pruning Shrub Roses, Repeat Bloomers
Modern shrub roses bloom on mature wood, but not wood that is old and woody. Let the shrub mature for 2 or three years, then begin “one third” pruning. This means to remove one-third of the oldest canes. Continued removal can be at your discretion based on the fullness of the shrub and your personal preference, you may certainly leave as many canes as you need to fill the space. At most, select one third of the youngest canes from last year, and remove everything else.
Pruning Portland and Bourbon Roses, Repeat Bloomers
These roses bloom on both old and new wood. Pruning beyond removal of deadwood should be done after the first bloom, and then only to shape, reduce height or thin to your liking. But since they bloom on old and new wood, pruning becomes personal preference with experience. They certainly can be pruned early in spring, and will take a hard pruning if you feel it is needed.
Pruning Old Garden Roses
(Albas, Centifolias, Damasks, Gallicas, and Mosses) These all bloom once, producing flowers on old wood. They only need to be pruned to your liking after the spring bloom, perhaps removing old wood to encourage new growth and/or shortening long shoots by a third. If you have a Damask that repeat blooms, prune like a hybrid tea rose. If you have a Moss Rose that repeat blooms, prune while the plant is dormant. Cut back by one half and remove some old wood at the base. Work on shaping and thinning, as they are a very vigorous bush.
Pruning Polyantha Roses
Prune while the plants are dormant leaving only an open structure of strong young canes. Remove all dead or damaged canes, then remove one-fourth to one-third of the remaining canes’ length. This may be easily accomplished by shearing, with a hedge shear. Polyantha roses are generally fairly compact and well behaved. Do not feel compelled to prune heavily if you are satisfied with the size and shape of your plant. Simply removing dead and damaged wood may be enough. Throughout the season, remove spent blooms if you like. Deadheading may be easily accomplished by shearing with a hedge shear. This may encourage reblooming, but the polyanthas rebloom quite steadily even without deadheading.
Pruning China Roses
Prune while the plants are dormant only to lightly shape.
Pruning Miniature Roses
Early in spring just trim with a garden clipper to about 8 to 15 “ tall.
Pruning Easy Elegance Roses
During the first season, Easy Elegance will require little or no pruning. Remove any dead or damaged canes with a sharp pruner. Once established, continue to remove any dead or damaged canes. Also keep the center of the plant open for good air circulation by pruning out crossing canes and canes growing inward. As the plant matures, pruning the oldest canes to 1/3 the size will encourage new growth and more blooms. Always prune in very early spring before growth begins, or in winter after plants have gone dormant. Dead and damaged wood should be removed immediately no matter what time of year. Deadhead spent blooms to encourage reblooming.
Pruning Modern Ever-Blooming and Floribunda Roses
Reduce the number of canes to 3 to 6, evenly spaced. These bloom primarily on new growth, so prune hard down to 18 to 30 inches. Some gardeners prefer to cut back at varying lengths to produce blooming at various times.
Pruning Hybrid Tea Roses, Grandifloras, and Hybrid Perpetuals
These also bloom on new wood and all pruning should be done in early spring. Remove all center canes to produce an open vase shape, leaving 4 to 6 canes. (Some gardeners prefer to leave as many canes as possible as long as enough canes are removed to promote excellent air circulation.) Cut back to about half, or 18 to 36 inches based on your preference.
Pruning and Training Climbing Roses and Rambling Roses
Vining roses can be either climbing or rambling, both very similar in many respects. Climbing roses are usually 8-10 feet, typically grown on some sort of structure such as a trellis. Most bloom at least twice somewhere in early summer into early fall, but new varieties may bloom continuously. Ramblers can reach 15-25 feet and usually only bloom once, but they bloom profusely and for a longer period than climbers, anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks. Once blooming roses also tend to be hardier and more disease resistant.
Climbing roses need to be supported and tied in place. Rambling roses grow thick and sturdy and usually only need to be tied for the first couple of years until they are established and “trained”. For both, you will need to secure three or four primary canes using plastic garden tape. The tape is flexible so as not to damage canes. Twine will work without much damage but will need to be replaced every few years as it decomposes. You can also find rolls of garden “twist ties” that are cut to lengths needed, but the wire can cause enough damage to kill canes. Tie tape or twine tightly to the support structure and then loosely to canes.
Ramblers must be pruned routinely as they grow vigorously and will become a tangled mess. Spring pruning should be limited to removal of dead canes and winter damage, and if absolutely necessary, to reduce size or trim shape. After they bloom you may prune as much as you like, all the way down to a few inches if you like. Or simply remove the oldest wood to produce new growth, saving a few main canes. Then do what looks good.
Climbing roses need a couple of years to mature before doing too much pruning. Prune early in spring for winter damage and dead canes, then reduce side/lateral shoots to 3 to 6 inches to increase flower production. Prune after flowering only to maintain size and shape. Don’t let a climber get too tall too fast or it will bloom primarily at the top. Keep it shorter at first until the bottom fills out letting it get tall over time. Just be careful not to prune too much new growth, on top or the laterals. Pruning hard will limit the bloom period since the first bloom is on old wood, then on newer growth.
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