Pruning Roses: How To Make The Cut For Healthy Plants and Beautiful Blooms

pruning roses

Roses are a staple in any landscaping space, and for good reason. These perennials are a favorite among many growers for their fragrant, elegant flowers that bloom from midsummer until fall. Drought-tolerant and pest-resistant, roses don’t require much work other than regular fertilization and pruning.   

Pruning, or the selective removal of dead and sickly stems and leaves, is necessary for rosebush health. The best time to prune is early spring, just as the plants are beginning to break dormancy, and pruning is as simple as cutting back old growth to make room for the new. 

At times, pruning may feel a little counterintuitive when your plant already looks healthy. But we can guarantee that your rose bushes will come back stronger and more beautiful than they did before!

Keep reading this comprehensive guide on pruning roses for everything you need to know about why, how, and when to prune roses.

The benefits of pruning roses

Generally speaking, all roses will need to be pruned at some point. But why, you ask?

  • More attractive plants 

Pruning allows you to shape your plants to fit the space that they fill. This is the opportunity to trim any wild stems back into formation or to cut too-tall canes on a plant that is intended to be a groundcover. It’s healthier for the plant—and it looks more attractive—to prune rose bushes to have a full, round, and symmetrical shape that comes from upright canes.
  • Keeps plants healthy

Pests often make a home in dead stems and foliage and can also harbor foliar and fungal diseases. Removing dead wood and spindly stems opens up the rosebush to better airflow, reducing the spread of pests and diseases between plants and strengthening each plant’s immunity.
  • Cut flower production

Regular pruning keeps plants in a vegetative state for longer than normal, allowing the plant to produce more blooms over a longer period of time. Deep cuts encourage roses to grow exceptionally long and straight stems, which are ideal for cutting.

Pruning is simply the removal of old growth. No, it doesn’t always feel good—in fact, some people may find that pruning gives them anxiety at first. But we can assure you, you won’t kill your roses by over-pruning!

The number-one mistake that growers make is not cutting hard enough. Even though it may feel a little icky, pruning roses keeps the plants healthy and strong, producing beautiful blooms season after season. 

As you might guess, different kinds of roses have different pruning needs.

Climbing roses

These vining plants have two types of stems. Main canes grow from the root of the plant, and lateral canes, the flowering stems, grow from the main canes. Climbing roses don’t need as particular pruning as other kinds of roses, as they are designed to have a more free-flowing shape. Pruning lateral canes will result in more flowers and climbing roses can be pruned as needed throughout the year.

Knock Out roses

Knock Out rose cultivars can be pruned for the first time when the bushes reach about three or four feet in height around their second or third growing season. Knock Out roses prefer to be pruned in late winter or early spring, and removing old growth is essential since these types only bloom on new growth. Don’t feel bad about pruning Knock Out Roses hard—these vigorous growers will quickly regrow what was lost and bloom all the better for it. Knock Out roses bloom continuously; you can deadhead spent flowers midseason to encourage a new flush of color. Cut back any rosehips to prolong dormancy and stimulate more flowering.

Groundcover roses

With spreading roses or shrub roses, the goal is to keep the canes fairly close to the ground to produce an attractive ground cover. Prune any canes that get too tall, and nip suckers as you see them. The same rules apply as with pruning other types of roses but be especially vigilant to remove any old or dead wood since airflow is a concern with these types of roses. 

When to prune roses

No, you won’t need to heavily prune the roses you purchase from Go Buy Plants, at least not initially. If any leaves are discolored or show damage from shipping, you can prune those stems upon arrival, but otherwise, you’ll want to wait to prune roses until after the first year.Like most perennial shrubs in temperate climates, roses undergo a period of dormancy every winter. The best time to prune roses is right as dormancy is beginning to break, in late winter or early spring. Depending on which hardiness zone you live in, this period can range anywhere between January and May. Light pruning, like deadheading spent flowers, can be done all season long, but you want to avoid pruning roses in late fall and early winter, right before the plants go dormant. Cuts made during this time will be slower to heal, and any new vegetation won’t be hardened off enough to survive winter.

How to prune roses in 5 easy steps

Before you even get started, you’ll need to gather your supplies—a good pair of these Gardening Gloves and a sharp, clean pair of garden shears. Pruners with bypass blades are preferred, as these snips will make a clean cut without crushing the stem. For extra protection, you might decide to wear long sleeves to keep your arms from getting scratched up, as you’ll need to reach into the rosebush sometimes.

Although it may slow you down, you’ll want to sanitize your snips between each rosebush to keep from transferring disease between plants. Keep a jar of 50-50 hydrogen peroxide and water solution close by and periodically dunk your shears.

Prune roses from the base and follow the stems upward to make sure that you don’t miss anything.

  1. Cut old growth and remove dead leaves

  2. Start by removing any old leaves that remain on the stem after the winter so you can see all the stems and the general shape of the plant. Cut away any stems that are brown and dry—this is old wood that won’t produce new stems.
  1. Remove suckers and cross branches

  2. Cut any spindly growth coming from the trunk of the rose bush. These are suckers and take energy away from the bigger stems. It’s also a good idea to cut any branches that are growing horizontally, as they could inhibit vertical growth.
  1. Cut new growth

  2. There are a couple of things to remember when cutting new growth:
  • Make a clean cut

When pruning roses or anything else, it’s important to make one clean cut so that the plant can grow a callous over the wound and keep out infection.

  • Cut above a leaf node

Cut at a 45-degree angle about a quarter inch above a leaf node. Leaf nodes look like tiny buds and are the precursor to leaves. Face the cut away from the plant so that new growth will branch out rather than grow up.

  • Cut back about 1/3 of the whole plant

I know it sounds like a lot! But the harder you cut your plants, the stronger they will come back.

  • Don’t seal the cuts

Despite some advice on the internet claiming that you should seal pruning cuts with glue or paint, this is not the practice recommended by horticulturalists. Roses are perfectly capable of healing themselves, especially when pruned correctly and at the right time.

  1. Cut any spindly, weak stems

  2. For the biggest, healthiest blooms, you need to train the rose bush to put its energy toward the largest stems. Remove any growth that is smaller than a pencil—these stems aren’t big enough to make the beautiful blooms you love!
  1. Clean up plant debris and toss

  2. You don’t want to leave the pruned stems and leaves for two reasons—first, roses are thorny, and you don’t want to stick yourself later when you go to weed or fertilize your roses! Secondly, dead stems and leaves could house diseases and pests, so take the clippings to the trash or the burn pile—not to the compost pile—to fully remove any threat from your garden.

What to Do After Pruning

After pruning, you’ll want to give your roses a good watering and feeding. Mix a water-soluble fertilizer according to the package directions, or sprinkle a slow-release granular fertilizer around the base of the plant after you water.

Roses are heavy feeders and prefer to be fertilized regularly, once a month or so. Roses like a balanced fertilizer blend that is a little bit heavier on Phosphate than on Nitrogen or Phosphorus (6-12-6, for example). Nitrogen is used for plants to grow stems and leaves, while phosphorus and potassium are needed for healthy root development and blooming.

By following these guidelines, you can prune your roses like a pro and enjoy healthy, thriving plants in your garden. Remember to take your time, use clean and sharp tools, and wear gloves to avoid injury. With a little bit of effort, you can achieve stunning roses that will be the envy of your neighborhood.