How to Prune Roses

If you grow roses and want those much-beloved flowers to blossom, you'll need to prune them. Here's how to master this simple technique.

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Americans come by their love of roses naturally. The nation’s first president, George Washington, grew them; a variety he named for his mother, the Mary Washington Rose, is still grown today. Roses grow in all 50 states. And in 1986, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the rose the national floral emblem of the U.S.

But anything this lovely requires a little work. If you grow rose gardens and want those much-loved flowers to bloom, you’ll need to prune them.

Why You Should Prune Roses

“Neglecting to prune your roses will lead to unproductive shrubs,” says Oregon State University professor and extension horticulturist Amy Jo Detweiler. Pruning roses promotes new growth and flowering, helps maintain plant health, and on some species encourages repeat blooming.

Detweiler says proactively pruning roses and removing old wood allows the plant’s roots to put all its energy into new growth, producing healthy shoots and vigorous blossoms.

When to Prune Roses

There’s no universal answer for when to prune your roses. Detweiler says it depends on the type of rose you’re growing.

Hybrid tea, grandiflora and floribunda are what we think of as long-stem roses. Detweiler says these should be pruned every year in the spring, just as the buds begin to swell and break dormancy. But climbing roses, hardy shrub roses and the elegantly named Old Garden roses (any rose variety that existed before 1867), should be pruned only after they have flowered, which may be late spring or summer.

If you grow miniature roses, these can be tip-pruned (pinched) several times a year because they bloom on new growth.

Tools for Pruning Roses

For roses, buy a pruning tool called a bypass pruner, Detweiler says. “They cut like scissors and will not crush the stem,” she notes. “For larger branches, use bypass loppers or a pruning saw.” Protect your hands with a thick pair of leather gardening gloves. You can buy gloves made specifically for rose pruning.

One nice benefit: You can use the same tool no matter what kind of roses you grow or your level of experience. Just make sure the blades are sharp. And in-between plants, spray the pruner with rubbing alcohol to prevent the spread of disease.

How to Prune Roses

Each type of rose can be pruned in a specific way. Detweiler offers this general that apply to all varieties.

  • Pruning simply means to cut away the unwanted parts of your plant. Work to remove all dead, damaged or diseased branches. If you see discoloration on the cane — which is simply the rose’s woody, pliable stem — prune below that area so only healthy canes remain.
  • Remove canes that are crossing or rubbing each other to increase air circulation. This improves light for the plant and helps to minimize disease.
  • Make the pruning cut at a 45 degree angle, the same angle as the bud, about a 1/4-inch above an outward-facing bud. The bud left below will grow outward and increase air circulation.
  • The center of the stem is called pith. You want to prune back to see a white center. If the center is discolored, prune back further.

How to prune long-stem roses

To encourage repeat blooming of your long-stem roses, remove the spent flowers, ensuring that rose hips — the rose’s rounded fruit — do not form.

Aggressive pruning will encourage larger blooms, but fewer of them. Canes thinner than a pencil can be removed, leaving three to five of the healthiest stems, 12 to 18 inches from ground level.

How to prune climbing roses

You can likely picture a “climbing rose,” but the phrase isn’t exactly accurate. Roses need to be secured to an arbor or trellis; they don’t just attach themselves and climb. But that’s how we identify them.

Remove the oldest canes here, leaving five to seven healthy ones. Because these canes can be long, you may need to remove them in sections.

How to prune Old Garden and hardy shrub roses

As their name implies, hardy shrub roses are a tougher lot, requiring less pruning and maintenance. Here, Dettweiler advises removing the older, less productive stems, and no more than one-third of the total plant. Avoid severe pruning on Old Garden roses so you do not disfigure the plant.

What Happens If I Skip Pruning?

“Plants will self-prune if left alone, but the process is long, drawn out over several (growing) seasons, and results in less vigorous shrubs and flowers,” Detweiler says.

If you’ve been slacking, there’s still hope. “The good news is that even a neglected shrub can be rejuvenated after pruning,” she says. “If you are properly pruning, you will be maximizing the plant’s ability to deliver healthy, showy blooms.”

Rose Pruning Tips

  • If your plant is healthy and has a good shape to it, you can go light on pruning, just making some very select cuts to aid the roses.
  • Some roses may not bloom for a while after a heavy pruning job; it might even take a full season in some cases. Instead, the plant will spend its energy regrowing stems.
  • Cut from the ground up, starting at the base and working your way up.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, has been a journalist for 30 years. She is the co-author of two pop-culture encyclopedias, "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She lives in a 90+-year-old house in Seattle in which she does home improvement projects with her husband and daughter. Gael loves the quirkiness of old homes.