An Introduction to Rose Pruning

It's really not that scary!

By Bobbie Reed, Consulting Rosarian

Prune at the right time.

We prune roses to stimulate new growth on which the bush will produce new flowers, so we prune when it will help the bush do that. For repeat-blooming roses, like hybrid teas, floribundas, and miniatures, the correct time is late winter - around the time forsythia is in full bloom in your neighborhood - that's late February or early March in the Atlanta area. For roses that bloom only once a year in the spring, prune immediately after the rose blooms.

Prune from the ground up.

Get down on the ground to find the strong, healthy canes that will support new growth. Look for canes growing from the bud union, the fat knot around ground level where the desirable rose is grafted to root stock on most roses. Anything coming from below the bud union on a grafted plant is a "sucker" from the root stock, and should be removed at the root - dig down to the root and cut it off flush with the root. Suckers are not a problem for "own-root" roses.

Cut out the old stuff.

Identify the newest, greenest canes, which you want to keep - they'll produce the most blooms. Then identify the oldest canes - they'll be grayer and craggy, if your bush is more than a couple of years old. The older canes are more likely to produce weak, spindly growth, so they won't be making long healthy stems for new flowers to grow on. Cut these older, less productive canes off at the bud union so they won't interfere with the growth of newer canes. Cut canes flush with the bud union, using loppers or a saw, so that new canes can grow from the bud union without interference.

Remove canes that are damaged.

Look out for obvious damage on canes, like eroded bark or dead canes. When cutting canes, look for holes that penetrate the center of a cane and run down the length of it - this is damage from a cane borer. Make progressively lower cuts on the cane until you are below the borer damage. Similarly, look out for canes where the pith is brown or black, and continue cutting until the pith is clear. If damage is too extensive, remove the entire cane flush with the bud union.

Cut out what's in the way.

The bush needs room for new growth; to provide that, the plant must grow outward from the center. Identify canes that grow across the center of the bush, and cut them off flush with the bud union or the cane they grow from. Identify canes that are crowding each other, and either brace them apart, or remove one of them, flush with the bud union.

Cut out the little stuff.

On a hybrid tea or grandiflora, remove anything smaller than a pencil. On a floribunda or shrub you can leave some of the smaller twigs; cut proportionally on a miniature. Twiggy branches are not large enough to support a flower, or to grow a cane large enough to produce a bloom.

When in doubt, cut it out.

It's almost impossible to kill a rose by pruning it. If a cane is questionable, be assured the bush will live without it.

Determine the desired height for your bush.

You want to cut all canes to approximately the same height. For a hybrid tea or grandiflora, this is about 2-2 feet tall, but for a miniature only 6-9 inches tall. For shrubs and bushier plants, you'll want to cut back about one-third of the bush, to whatever height that gives you. For climbers, after you've taken out the oldest canes, shorten the lateral branches growing from the remaining canes, rather than shortening the long canes. It is OK to cut rose bushes shorter than this to remove damaged canes; or if you want to, you can cut canes shorter to produce fewer but larger blooms, as you might for a rose show.

Find a bud and make a cut.

Look for a bud eye at the intersection of the cane and a five-leaflet leaf. If the bud is dormant, the bud eye may look like an expanded horizontal band on the cane. There should be several on the cane; find one about the right height that faces outward, away from the center of the bush. Make your cut with sharp pruning shears about " above a bud eye, at about a 45 angle, with the high side above the bud - this protects the bud from a too-close cut.

Seal all your cuts.

Put a drop of wood glue on the end of the cane to keep out cane borers, which can do severe damage to the cane over the course of the year.

Clean your pruners.

Before cutting another bush, clean your pruning shears, loppers, and saw, to reduce the spread of diseases and viruses between bushes. Use a 1-to-10 solution of Lysol and water, or chlorine bleach and water.

Strip off remaining leaves.

Take off anything that grew the previous season. This removes a potential source of fungal infection and insects.


Using a small wire brush, brush off that scaly, woody old bark on the bud union. Try not to knock off any fresh bud eyes in the process. This helps to provide room for new basal breaks - fresh canes for next year.

Clean up!

Remove any cut branches and foliage from the area of the plant, as they may harbor fungal spores or insects from the previous season. Bag and discard any trimmings - do not compost them, since this will not kill the fungal spores. Pull and discard any weeds or grass around the base of the bush, and replace or refresh your mulch.

Attend a pruning demonstration by your local rose society to see experienced rose growers in action. Or contact a Consulting Rosarian for additional information and assistance.

If you have any questions, contact Bobbie Reed or any of our Consulting Rosarians.