How and When to Prune Rose Bushes This Season

Are you wondering when and how you should prune your roses? There are some basic guidelines for rose pruning, but sometimes you need to keep variety and growth habit in mind. In this article, gardening expert and rose enthusiast Danielle Sherwood walks you through 7 essential rose pruning basics, and tells you how to set your roses up for a healthy and vigorous blooming season!

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Roses left unpruned for several seasons have reduced productivity, can suffer from undetected diseases, and just plain look unruly. Pruning will keep size in check and maintain a healthy, abundantly blooming rose bush. However, not all roses need to be pruned every season.

With a few basic guidelines under your belt, you can feel good about tackling that overgrown rose bush or rejuvenating a rose that isn’t performing as well as it could.

First, take into account what type of rose you’re working with. Is it a hybrid tea? Shrub rose? Polyantha? A climbing rose? Do you have a once-bloomer or a repeat-flowering rose? Correctly identifying your rose will help you know how to prune and train it for the best performance all season long.

If you don’t know much about the variety of roses growing in your garden, don’t worry! I’ll start with some essential pruning rules that you can safely apply to all roses. After a season or two, you’ll get to know them better. In this easy guide, we’ll take the mystery out of when and how you should prune your roses. Follow along for 7 easy tips and tricks!

Step 1: Determine if Pruning is Needed

Close-up of a flowering Rose 'Marion' bush in a sunny garden. The bush is medium in size, lush, has healthy shiny dark green foliage, oval shape with serrated edges, and large double flowers of bright pink.
Pruning should be done when the bush is more than 3 years old and you don’t like its overall shape and unhealthy look.

Before you start pruning, know that not all roses need to be pruned every season. Ask yourself these questions before you get started:

Questions to Ask:

How old is your rose?

In general, a rose doesn’t need to be pruned until it is well-established. This means you don’t need to prune until it’s about 3 years old unless you see diseased or damaged canes and foliage, or it has already become unruly. u003cstrongu003e u003c/strongu003e

Do you like the overall shape of the plant?

If the rose bush is the size and shape you want, it doesn’t need pruning except to remove unhealthy growth or maintain airflow.

If your rose is 3+ years old, has grown too large, isn’t producing many blooms, or looks unhealthy, it’s time to prune! Your primary goal is to foster new healthy growth and maintain a desirable shape.

So, when’s the best time to prune? How and what should you remove? Let’s get started!

Step 2: Prune at the Right Time

Close-up of a woman pruning a tea rose bush in a sunny garden. The bush is low, lush, has complex pinnate leaves of oval dark green leaflets with serrated edges. The flowers are small, lush, double, pale pink.
You can prune in the spring to encourage flowering and in the fall before winter dormancy.

For most climates, the ideal time to prune runs from February through April. Many gardeners like to watch for the first flowering of early-blooming shrubs like forsythia and service berry. When these bloom, it’s a good indicator that it’s safe to start pruning.

However, weather can sometimes be unpredictable, so use your predicted last hard frost date as a general rule. After the threat of hard frost has passed, you can get pruning!

When it’s time to prune, your roses are just beginning to wake up after winter dormancy (if you don’t experience a cold winter, you can prune whenever you’d like!). Bud-eyes will start to swell along the canes. These small nubs show you where new growth is going to begin. 

If you’ve missed this late winter to early spring window, don’t fret. Pruning can happen throughout the growing season. Just make sure you give them a month or two of warm weather to recover.

You can also give them a light prune in the fall to avoid the overwintering of any fungal or viral issues. If you choose to do a fall pruning, either wait until the plant is dormant (after frost) or do so at least 6-8 weeks before your last frost so any resulting tender new growth isn’t killed off by the cold.

Fall pruning is helpful for areas that experience harsh, windy winters. This will protect long canes from snapping off in the wind and make the size more manageable if covering is needed to provide winter protection.

Step 3: Use the Right Tools

Close-up of a gardener's hands in green gloves pruning a rose bush with secateurs in a spring garden. Secateurs are clean, sharp, with two-tone blue and yellow handles. The rose bush has tall stems with young reddish-green oval leaves with serrated edges.
Use clean, sharp secateurs, shears, or loppers when pruning.

Start with clean, sharp bypass pruners. If you’re working with a mature plant that has large woody canes, you may also need bypass loppers or a small handsaw to tackle them.

Sharp clean shears result in clean, even cuts that are easier to heal from. You don’t want to smash the canes with a dull cut and cause them to die back or become susceptible to pests and disease.

Sanitize your pruners before you begin with Lysol or rubbing alcohol. While you work, bring a spray bottle or jar of the sanitizer with you. This way, you can spray or dip your pruners between bushes, ensuring that you don’t spread any disease or viruses between plants.

Step 4: What and How to Prune

Close-up of a gardener's hand cutting diseased rose leaves with blue secateurs in an autumn garden. The bush has complex pinnate leaves, consisting of oval leaflets with serrated edges. The leaves are dark green, with yellow and black-purple spots.
It is also necessary to remove all shoots and foliage that are diseased or dead.

For most varieties, you want to maintain a vase shape with an open middle to ensure airflow through the interior of the bush.

Follow these pruning guidelines for what to remove, and what to keep:

The 3 Ds Remove any canes or foliage that is dead, diseased, or dying. Unsightly spotted leaves from a wet winter? Gently pull them down and back to remove them. Black dead canes? Cut them down to where you see healthy green growth.
Airflow You want to remove any small, twiggy canes that are causing congestion in the interior of the bush. You can remove everything but an outer circle of canes if you like a neat, vase shape. This prevents moisture and fungus development on the inside of the bush.
Cut back to an outward-facing bud node This isn’t crucial, but you want to encourage new growth to spread outward rather than toward the interior of the plant whenever possible. When cutting back canes to maintain desired size, find a swollen nub (bud eye) on the cane that is facing toward the outside of the plant, and cut cleanly just above it.
Remove Suckers There are two different kinds of growth categorized as suckers. First is a new plant of your desired variety that has rooted from a cane that is touching the soil. These can be cut from the main plant, dug up, and transplanted to a new location or given away.

The second type is undesirable growth from below the graft (the large knuckly nob where the canes meet the roots) of a rose. This growth is from the rootstock, and if not removed, will eventually take over.

Hard prune an overgrown bush If you have a rose bush that has grown beyond your desired size, feel free to cut the whole thing down by ⅓ as a first step. This will help you see the base and interior canes more clearly so you can identify what needs to be removed. To spur new production, cut out a couple of the oldest, barky canes each year. Vigorously growing roses that are out of control can be cut down as low as 12-18 inches from the ground if desired.
Clean-up Remove and throw away any diseased or damaged foliage that fell to the ground during pruning. This prevents diseases from hanging out in your soil to reinfect your plants. If you removed healthy growth to maintain desired shape or size, you can use them to propagate new plants!

Step 5: Considerations by Variety and Habit

Different types of roses will have different pruning needs. So, it’s important to make sure that you understand what type you have before you start to prune. Let’s take a look at considerations by rose type and variety.

Climbing Roses:

Close-up of a woman's hand cutting with blue secateurs the hanging flowering stems of a climbing rose, in a sunny garden. The bush is large, growing vertically, covered with complex pinnate leaves of dark green color with oval, serrated leaves along the edges. Bright pink double small flowers grow in large clusters. The petals are oval, small, ruffled.
Be sure to tie the side shoots of the climbing rose to support immediately after pruning.

All roses produce more flowering shoots on canes that are trained to grow horizontally, rather than vertically. This is particularly important to remember for climbing roses like the Lady Banks rose that can send out long canes. These roses may only produce flowers at the top that are too high up to appreciate!

To encourage prolific blooms all along the bush, tie your climber’s lateral canes horizontally (below a 45-degree angle) to a structure or support using twine, vinyl ties, or even pantyhose. Do this right after spring pruning, and you will soon see many new flowering shoots appear all along the outward-growing canes.

Once-Blooming Varieties:

Close-up of a blooming 'Leonardo da Vinci' rose bush in a sunny garden. A gardener girl touches a rose bud and is about to cut a couple of flowers with black secateurs. The bush is large, lush, covered with dark green jagged compound pinnate leaves and lush, large, double bright pink flowers, with densely arranged rounded petals in several layers.
Ramblers, species and Old Garden roses are not recommended for pruning in early spring before flowering.

Once-blooming roses should not be pruned before their first bloom. These include many ramblers, species (wild) roses, and Old Garden roses.

If you cut them back in early spring, you will also cut off the growth that produces your spring flush of flowers. Instead, wait until your rose is done blooming for the season, and use the same general pruning guidelines. This will set your once-blooming variety up for success next season.

Shrub vs. Hybrid Teas:

Close-up of female hands pruning a hybrid tea rose with green pruners, in a sunny garden. The rose has a tall stem, covered with dark green pinnately compound foliage, and a beautifully lush, double flower with large white rounded petals with crimson edges, slightly arching outward.
Hybrid tea roses need to be cut back above the bud node to encourage new growth at the top of the canes.

Many shrub roses, like climbers, have somewhat flexible canes and will produce more flowers when you encourage canes to grow as horizontally as possible.

You can do this by pegging. Pegging is simply bending the canes outward and down and securing them at the bottom (some will stay put on their own while others will need to be secured with a tie) so that they grow outward rather than vertically.

Most hybrid teas have fairly rigid upright canes and should be left to grow vertically. Simply cut them back above an outward-facing bud node as needed and allow them to produce new growth at the top of the canes.

Recovery

Close-up of a hand with a yellow hose watering a rose bush in a flower bed. The rose bush is lush, has erect stems covered with dark green compound pinnate leaves with oval serrated leaflets and new small shoots. The bush is completely covered with drops of water.
Take care of roses after pruning by fertilizing and watering regularly.

After spring pruning, help your roses by applying compost or slow-release fertilizer to help them produce new growth and abundant blooms. Water whenever the first few inches of soil are dry, usually once a week for established plants. Water up to 3 times per week for younger plants, depending on your climate.

Deadhead Throughout the Season

Close-up of a man's hand pruning a faded rose flower with orange secateurs in the garden, against a blurred background. The rose bush has dark green, oval foliage with serrated edges and a large wilted brown-pink bud.
Remove spent flowers to encourage new growth.

To keep the blooms coming all season long, remove spent flowers as they wither on the bush. This will tell your rose to trigger new growth. You can simply snap the flower off with your fingers as you pass by or get out your pruners and cut back above a 5-7 leaflet. This will encourage more vertical growth.

Stop deadheading in late summer to encourage your rose to enter dormancy and set hips if desired.

Pruning Myths

You should always cut back by 1/3

The amount you prune varies based on health, variety, and desired shape. There is no hard and fast rule for how far back you should prune. If the plant is healthy and has an attractive shape and size, you don’t have to prune it at all.

Always cut canes at a 45-degree angle

This strategy, previously thought to prevent moisture from gathering on newly cut canes, has since been debunked many times over. You can cut canes straight across. It’s most important to achieve a clean cut with sharp sanitized shears.

You should always seal cut canes

You might see recommendations stating you should seal all cut canes, sometimes using Elmer’s Glue, clear nail polish, or a rose-specific product. The truth is that sealing is unnecessary and can sometimes cause harm by sealing in moisture and decay. Sealant also makes it difficult for the cane to form its own natural seal, which usually occurs within 30 minutes.

The exception to leaving canes unsealed is if you have verified presence of active cane-boring insects in your area. In this case, it is wise to seal newly cut canes to prevent infestation.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be intimidated by the idea of pruning this season. Pruning can be an easy and straightforward task if you keep these essentials in mind: prune when roses wake up in early spring, remove anything dead, diseased, or dying.

Maintain airflow in the interior of the plant. Always use sharp, clean tools and sanitize in between each rose bush. Here’s to a season of beautiful blooms! Enjoy your roses.

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