Back to Tips & Tricks

Tis Time to Prune ye Roses

6 min read | Dec 13, 2012 | Plants 

Many of you have purchased roses in the past & their care & maintenance has always been a prime consideration in that decision.  Good news for those of you who have Knock Out roses (it is now a much less complicated process).  Pruning of hybrid tea roses need not be a complicated process either.

Always prune this time of year, before new growth starts, as early as January but usually in February or March.  Roses in this area usually start to grow in March depending on the weather & temperatures.  Watch the bushes carefully,  it is important that you do most of your pruning before the bushes starts to push out new leaves, just as the buds have started to swell.   If you prune too late your bush will be weakened due to loss of sap (its’ their life blood).

You need clean, sharp tools.  If you forgot the pruners in the back of the drawer & they are still coated with sap & dried juices from last years gardening activities your must clean them.  Scrape the biggest deposits off, scrub them in a bath of warm sudsy water, followed by a rinse of a 1 part Clorox to 9 parts water solution to kill any diseases, dry them, & lubricate the joints & blades with an all purpose lubricating oil.  While handling the tools examine the edges.  You should have a sharp, smooth edge.  If the blades are nicked or jagged you will need to sharpen them or have them sharpened.  Damaged blades cause damage to the branches & canes, creating a jagged place for diseases to penetrate the stems.  You could treat yourself by investing in a new pair of clean, sharp pruners from Fairview.  The Garden Center has a wonderful selection of tools as well as stout gardening gloves, & kneeling pads to make your gardening chores easier, & more pleasant.

The pruning tool of choice is the 2 bladed secateurs (they work like scissors, overlapping blades).  They come in several sizes as well as long handled models.  The longer handled ones are great for climbers & is my choice for all thorny bushes.  Avoid the one bladed, anvil type pruners, these cause a crushing injury & are reserved for dead stems.   A pruning saw might come in handy if renovating old bushes,  never remove more than 1/3 of the canes in any one year.

Should there be any old leaves on the bush remove them first (this signals the bush to make new leaves).   1) Always start with the removal of the dead parts of the plant, then the damaged,  the diseased stems,  ones rubbing against each other (removing the weaker one solves that problem), & any suckers.   2) Remove very thin stems (smaller than a pencil) & any that bend or tear off easily (weak, unripe stems) as they are too soft to be productive.  3) By now all you have is healthy stems on the bush.   Open up the center of the bush (to provide for better air circulation) by removing some of the center stems.   4) Cut to the desired height, usually about knee high (12-18”) & your pruning job is finished!

There are different methods of pruning:  A hard prune is rarely indicated but is used when planting bare root bushes & if growing hybrid tea roses for exhibition.  With this technique you would cut down to a second node preferably outward facing above the graft, leaving 7-12 inch long canes & remove all but 3-5 canes.  This method is not recommended for Knock Outs (a shrub rose), or floribunda roses.

The pruning cut is the same for whatever pruning method you use.  Make the cut at a 45 degree just above the bud/node and slanted to protect the bud.  A moderate prune is reducing the height of the bush to about 15-18” height & this technique will provide you with abundant blossoms.  Light pruning is removing just the tips of the stem length, maybe as much as 1/3 if a vigorous grower.  Peace, the hybrid tea rose, is one you should prune lightly, & all roses if grown in very sandy soil.

Rocking requires an earlier light pruning.  When a rose is on the tall side winter winds can “rock” the plant, loosening roots, so it is helpful if you reduce the size of the long shoots in late fall (about Thanksgiving time).  Sometimes this includes climbers not securely fastened to a trellis, & some vigorous roses who grow near 6 feet.

Some roses can be cut nearly to the ground if they are grown on their own root & are vigorous growers, The Fairy, & some old fashioned ramblers,  come to mind.  But I wouldn’t suggest it, unless absolutely necessary.  This harsh pruning does encourage a strong root system.

Floribunda, & patio rose bushes can be pruned to irregular heights (cut some stems closer to the soil level, 2-3 buds on a stem, leave other stems longer) which ensures a longer blooming period.  Never severely prune an entire Floribunda bush, death will occur in most instances.

If you should be fortunate enough to have a weeping standard you will want to cut the flowering stems back in the fall.  Trim back the remaining stems the following March.  When in doubt, be cautious; remove only short sections of the stems.

Shrubs (which includes the Knock Out varieties) & ground cover bushes require little pruning until well established.  You want to shape them more than anything else.  I have found in this area my Knock Outs grow very well & I take them down to about 12-18 inches.  From Feb. until the end of summer most of my rose bushes grow at least 5 feet.  The single red Knock Out usually grows to about 5 1/2’, the single pinks to around 5’, & Home Runs to about 4 ½’.  (I love the combination of the taller reds flanked by the pinks especially when they intermingle!)

I want to re-emphasize the angle of the cut & where it should be on the cane.  Always cut a tiny bit above the bud or node at a 45 degree angle with the tip of the angle above the bud about 1/8th inch.   If you want a wide spread bush make sure the cut is just above a bud/node on the outside of the cane.  If you want a narrower bush make your last cut on a bud on the inside of the cane.  That gives you some control over the shape of your bushes.  You can plan on rose blooms from April to December depending on the frost dates.  Seldom will you grow anything that provides more blooms over a longer period of time than roses.  Enjoy!

Jean Tracy, Certified Plant Professional