Pruning, Trimming & Cutting Back a Rose Bush
How to Prune Rose Plants
How you prune your roses and trim them to keep them in shape determines how well they flower and how healthy they stay. The purpose of pruning is to increase the number of flowers that the plant produces and to produce a good, rounded, balanced plant. It is not difficult to do - although we recommend some serious gloves! - but it helps to know what type of rose you are dealing with because they are all treated in slightly different ways. These may seem confusing but it is far better to prune your roses badly than not at all, and bear in mind that roses are forgiving and will grow back! However, whatever rose you own, there are some pruning rules that apply to all roses (and to most plants for that matter).
Your cutting implements (secateurs, pruning shears or saws) should be sharp so that you make the cleanest cut possible. Jagged wounds heal slowly and provide a golden opportunity for fungal infections to enter a rose. The A-grade gardener will disinfect their implements each time they are used - ideally between cuts but certainly between rose plants.
Rose prunings and leaves should be swept up and burnt or taken to a recycling or green waste facility rather than being composted. Even if a rose is diseased, prunings could be harbouring something unpleasant - so don’t take the risk.
Cut dead, dying, damaged and diseased stems or branches back to a healthy point on the stem. Cuts on upright stems should be diagonal so that rainwater flows off the wound.
Crossing stems rub against each other and creating a wound and an entry point for infection. Cut one of the crossing stems as far back as is necessary to stop the problem.
Spindly growth is never going to turn into strong sturdy stems, so cut it out and allow the plant to grow more promising stems.
Deadheading is relevant for all repeat flowering (remontant) roses, but is not relevant for roses that flower once (see below) or for roses where part of the reason for growing them is to enjoy their hips in the autumn (such as rosa rugosa and rosa moyesii 'Geranium'). Deadheading encourages the rose to produce more flowers. It also removes spent flower heads that have faded and may harbour disease. It stops plants wasting their energy on producing hips and seeds and diverts it back into producing flowers. To deadhead, snap the rose head off just behind where the stalk meets the bulge of the flower calyx. Where you have a whole cluster of flowers at the end of a stem - such as with floribunda roses - cut the whole cluster off.
When you are pruning, check the roots of your roses to see they are firm in the ground. If one is not, firm the soil around the base of the plant and prune that rose back a bit harder so the wind has less plant to blow about (thereby dislodging the roots).
Pruning Repeat Flowering Roses
This section covers the basics of pruning for all Repeating (remontant roses) including all Bourbon, China, Portland and English shrub roses (as bred by David Austin), as well when you should prune rose bushes.
The First Year
In its first year, your rose needs to develop its root system. Therefore, pruning will be less fierce than in later years. Pruning should happen in the late February after its first flowering when you can best see the structure of the plant. In the North, wait until March. But, if you forget, you can still prune, even in April.
Concentrate on removing dead, diseased, damaged or dying shoots. Then cut all the shoots back by about 10 cms. Next step back and look at the shape of the rose and draw an imaginary semi-circle around it. Any shoots that are sticking out should be taken back to the arc of the semi-circle. Prune out any shoots that cross or rub against one another. Any remaining foliage that is still on the rose post winter should be taken off and disposed of. The following summer, you need to deadhead as above.
The Second Year
More mature but still with room for root development, your rose needs the amount of top growth to be kept to that which can be supported by the root system. Unlike the first year, cut healthy shoots back by a third instead of 10cms. Then, as before, adjust any longer shoots so that they fit into the basic shape of the bush.
Don't forget to remove all the dead and dying leaves that have remained over winter, and deadhead throughout the following summer.
The Third Year
Now your rose is mature and you can adjust its size and shape to a greater degree than before. If it is larger than you wanted, cut back the stems half - or even more if you want! They will regrow and still produce wonderful flowers. If it is not large enough, then cut all the stems back by about a quarter. And, if the size is just right, cut the stems back by a third. Otherwise, the pruning regime remains as for year 2. Deadhead throughout the summer.
And Ever Onwards...
Continue pruning as for year 3 but bear in mind that if you get a build up of old wood, especially in the centre of the plant, you may need to cut this out to encourage a new shoot from the base of the plant.
The above are the general principles for all repeat flowering roses. However there a a few “variations” for three specific groups:
Hybrid Tea Roses
While the basics remain the same, hybrid tea roses should be cut back hard down to 15cm from the ground. You should be able to see where last year's growth began and that is where your cuts should be. Stems that have flowered for three years or more should be cut out entirely at the base. New shoots will then appear that bear even better blooms.
Recognisable by the clusters of flowers that they produce at the end of their stem, floribunda roses are not as tough as hybrid teas. So be more gentle and only cut them back to 30-45cm from the ground. Again, stems that are over 3-4 years old should be cut back to the base.
Climbing roses are treated somewhat differently - although they are generally repeat flowerers as well. You need to concentrate on building up a framework to cover the wall, trellis or arch it is growing on. The basics of cutting out dead, diseased and dying wood still holds.
Pruning Single-Flowering Roses
If your rose only flowers once a season, it is probably either an older variety of rose or a descendant of one. Repeat flowering has been bred into modern roses to extend their interest over the summer. This means that the pruning advice differs.
Here the emphasis is less on cutting back the stems. This is because their habit is to arch beautifully, giving these roses their elegant shape. More importantly, many of them actually flower better on older wood. Instead, you should try to encourage new growth from the base of the plant. This advice applies to Species, Alba, Centifolia, Damask, Gallica, Hybrid Musk (e.g. Penelope and Buff Beauty), Musk, Rugosa, Scots and Sweet Briar varieties that only flower once in summer. In reality, most rarely need pruning at all, except to cut out old wood and to keep them to their allocated place and size.
The First Year
As with the repeat flowerers, your rose will be developing its root system and it should not be pruned in the winter after planting. Instead after it has finished flowering remove diseased, damaged, dying or dead wood and crossing or rubbing stems.
The Second Year
Because these roses are not usually grafted some may have sent out suckers and new shoots that will also flower and should be kept. Proceed as for the first year.
The Third Year
The centre of the plant may become crowded with old and new wood. If so, take out some of the older stems at the base. This may not be necessary depending on how well the rose is doing.
From then on, do an annual check after flowering to remove congested or old wood in addition to any unhealthy or dead stems. If the plant becomes leggy - the lower parts of the rose are bare and unproductive - cut several of the stems out at the base and you will see new bushy growth is regenerated next season. If your roses then become too tall, just cut them back to size after flowering in late summer.
Most rambling roses also only flower once and they just need to be contained in the space allocated to them. If they are running wild and wonderful up a tree or shed then leave well alone. If, however, you have trained your rambler to cover a wall, then best practice would see you deal with them in late summer by cutting any flowered stems back to two to three inches from the main framework branches. After five years or so, it is worth removing some of the oldest wood back to the base to allow a new shoot to be tied in. This new shoot will produce better flowers. They do not need pruning otherwise.