Their prickly stems and vigorous growth can intimidate even experienced gardeners, but cutting back roses is key to successful blooms and helping these plants look their best. What’s more, roses are notoriously hardy and forgiving when it comes to any mistakes, so you don’t have to worry about causing severe damage to your plant in the long run.
Our guide will explain the benefits of pruning roses, when best to prune them, and how to get the job done.
What’s the difference between shrub and species roses?
There are over 300 species in the rosa family, with many falling into two popular groups: shrub roses and wild roses.
Shrub roses are most well-known for their hardiness and colourful, bountiful blooms that branch out in a vase-like shape. Wild roses – or species roses – get their name from the fact that they are wild plants of natural origin. They tend to have a single flower on a thorny stem and attract pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Species roses have been around for a long time, and many shrub roses are hybrids of wild rose varieties.
Whether your plants are shrub or species roses, the fundamentals of growing and pruning them are largely the same.
What are the benefits of pruning roses?
Since roses grow quickly, pruning helps to keep them from looking overgrown. Cutting off and safely disposing of dead or diseased stems will also help to reduce any potential spread, which should be a part of general garden maintenance.
Roses can also benefit from deadheading. Deadheading is a type of pruning where fading or dying flowers are removed to maintain the plant’s appearance and encourage the production of new, fresh buds. Deadheading to just below the bloom, down to where the stem is healthy, means that the plant can focus its energy on generating new growth instead.
Pruning your roses is an essential part of maintenance, and they should reward you generously with plenty of new blooms.
When is the best time to prune roses?
For most species, the ideal time to prune roses is between the end of winter and early spring, when growing season starts and before blooms appear. This is because it’s easier to spot healthy, growing stems from those that may be struggling and need to be cut back.
In warmer areas of the UK, or if the winter is mild, this may be as early as February. However, in cooler parts, it’s safer to wait until March. Regardless of location, always wait until after your last frost date to reduce the chance of cold damage to your cut stems.
Deadheading can be done in summer during flowering season. This will help to promote more blooms later in the year.
Tools you’ll need to prune roses
Before you get started, make sure you have the right tools and equipment:
- Gloves – Gloves are a must-have for pruning roses. Select a thick and puncture-resistant pair to protect against rose shrubs’ sharp thorns, but you should also be able to manoeuvre and handle the stems easily. Long-cuff or gauntlet-cuff gloves will protect not only your hands but your wrists and upper arms.
- Shears or secateurs – Secateurs can help you with most of the pruning. They’re easy to control, so are excellent for adding shape to your shrub or cutting precise stems. If you’re taming back a lot of growth or you need to remove canes at the base of your plant, you may also need a pair of shears.
- Suitable clothing – As well as long gloves, make sure that you’re wearing protective clothing like a long-sleeved jacket and long trousers. Pricks from rose thorns aren’t just painful, they can also cause bacterial and fungal infections. The best way to reduce the risk of infection is to cover up any exposed skin and wear thick layers.
How much to cut back roses
How much to prune your roses depends on two factors: the age of your plant and the species.
Rose shrub age
Newly planted roses, or those in their first year, should be lightly pruned. While these plants are still establishing their roots, cut back dead, dying, or diseased stems. Flowering stems can be cut back too, but don’t trim past three to five inches in order to maintain healthy growth.
Established rose shrubs will be fully formed at around three years and will be able to tolerate more severe pruning.
At this stage, how much to cut back depends on the look that you want to achieve. Remove any dead or diseased stems first, then:
- For a taller rose shrub – Give stems a light trim, making sure you cut less than a third of their original length.
- To maintain the same size – Prune stems by one-third of their original length. Moderate pruning will help to improve the plant’s flowering.
- To reduce its size – Cut back by at least half its original size. A severe prune can revive older plants with stunted growth. Removing this much of the plant means it may not bloom until the following year as it will need to regrow its lost stems.
If you opt for a moderate or severe prune, your plant will appear a lot more bare and smaller than before. This is normal; roses are fast and vigorous growers, and a hard prune will repay you with a stronger bloom in spring.
Rose shrub species
Pruning requirements also vary due to the species and classification of different rose shrubs.
Roses that bloom once a year
Unlike other shrub roses, these roses should be lightly pruned shortly after they have flowered – usually in late summer. These include:
As well as deadheading, cut any branches that are dead or diseased. There may be a build-up of older branches within the centre of your plant, causing your shrub to appear overcrowded.
You might need to cut back at least half of the shrub’s height to remove these older stems.
Roses that flower repeatedly
Shrub roses that repeat flower can bloom multiple times from spring until early winter. As they have a longer flowering period, they may need to be pruned twice a year to keep their quick growth in check. These include:
- Rosa bourbon
- Rosa chinensis
- Rosa portland
When growing season begins in early spring or late winter, these roses can be lightly pruned by cutting back up to a third of their original size.
Deadheading can be carried out over summer after flowering and some mature plants may require another light prune in winter. Cut back some of the main stems so new branches can grow the following year.
How to prune roses
Keep in mind that a well-pruned rose shrub should have a ‘V’ shape where the foundation canes are evenly spaced apart, and outer branches have an open structure with branches pointing upwards.
1. Remove any foliage
The first step is to remove any old leaves that have survived the winter. This is so you can have a clear view of the rose shrub’s structure and can easily spot any problems that need to be attended to.
As well as damaged stems, this may reveal any signs of pests or diseases that need to be treated.
2. Cut the four D’s
Prune any canes or branches that follow the four D’s: dead, diseased, damaged, or dying. Generally speaking, anything green is still alive and brown likely means that it’s dying.
Cut these back to the base to conserve the plant’s energy. Once you make the cut, you should be able to see the inside white flesh which indicates the healthy part of the stem. If the flesh isn’t white, keep cutting lower until you expose the healthy stem.
3. Remove overcrowded branches
In the centre of the shrub, cut back branches that cross over with other canes; these can rub together and cause damage to your plant. Eliminating these stems will open up the middle of the structure and encourage better light and air circulation to the remaining canes.
Remember, try to aim for all of the branches pointing upwards in a ‘V’ formation.
4. Remove any thin branches
Next, remove twig-like or weak growth to encourage the shrub to direct energy towards healthier stems. Cut any canes that are thinner than a pencil down to the base.
This will also help to create a more open structure.
5. Start pruning
After removing all the dead or weak wood, you can begin to prune the remaining stems.
Based on how you want your shrub to look once flowering, cut down each branch to half an inch above a bud that faces outwards. New growth will occur in the direction that the bud is facing; you want to encourage growth outwards rather than into the centre of the shrub.
Make sure you always cut at a 45-degree angle.
6. Seal any cuts
New cuts are more susceptible to rot and disease, so seal the wound using a pruning seal.
Apply liberally with a paintbrush over the cut to ensure the wood is fully protected.
7. Dispose of cut wood
Gather all of the leaves and cuttings after you’ve finished pruning your rose shrub. Safely dispose of all cuttings to reduce the chances of any diseases contaminating other plants.
8. Apply a fertiliser
To give your roses the best chance, apply a fertiliser to deliver the proper nutrition they need to grow beautiful blooms.
How to prune climbing roses
Climbing roses can be tricker to prune as they also require training to help them achieve the desired coverage.
This training includes tying the stems to a supporting structure so they have something to cling to as they grow. Garden twine is usually used for tying in climbing roses to trellises, walls, or fences.
Climbing roses are pruned in late winter or early spring and can be done with these simple steps:
- Remove any leaves left from winter.
- Cut back dead, dying, damaged, or diseased branches.
- Remove any branches that point away from the supporting structure and cannot be tied back.
- Prune shoots that have flowered by half or two-thirds of their original length.
- Open the structure of the plant by removing weak or old growth. Cut these back to the base.
- Tie in any new growth that’s not supported to fill available space.
When pruning roses, the key thing to remember is to remove any weak growth that could be limiting your plant’s ability to produce new blooms. Roses can tolerate heavy pruning, so don’t be afraid to trim those branches back – they may look bare immediately afterwards, but properly cutting back roses will help them to produce bountiful flowers!
For more gardening advice, read more on the Hedges blog.