How to Prune Roses: Annual and Continual Pruning Techniques
For the purposes of this guide, I will discuss two basic types of pruning: annual and continual. “Annual” pruning is performed once a year in the late winter or very early spring. Both are legitimate methods, teaching you how to prune roses properly.
“Continual” pruning is performed throughout the year. Continual pruning includes the removal of spent blossoms and dead or diseased branches and should be done whenever the plant is growing.
But, the rule of thumb for the major, “annual” pruning is that it should happen only after the chance of snow or a hard frost no longer exists.
The reason is that pruning will force new growth and new growth is tender and very vulnerable to cold temperature damage. It is this initial flush of growth that will provide the first, and sometimes the best flowers. So, we need to wait until after the last frost has passed to do our annual pruning.
In the coldest climates, typically March is when we begin the annual pruning and in the more moderate climates January and February. In Bay Area of Northern California, where my mother lives, I usually plan on a trip to take care of her roses at the end of January or in early February.
In climates where there is a real winter, with freezing temperatures and snow I suggest waiting at least until March, and probably the end of the month. Pay attention to the forecast and hold off if any very cold blasts are expected.
Where to Start
The challenge here is not to wait too long to begin pruning. If you delay until after the new growth has begun flushing out, it will weaken the plants and set back their spring push. You will be cutting off canes that are full of new sap rushing to force the first leaves and flowers so keep an eye on the weather. Don’t worry! In time you will develop a feel for this “sweetspot” between spring flush and last frost.
Before we jump right into the actual pruning techniques I need to give you some information on the tools you will need. Like my father used to say: “only a poor man can afford to buy cheap tools”. I suggest that you invest in good quality tools. Take care of them and they will make your job much easier. Here are the basic tools you will need.
Tools you will need
- Bypass hand clippers
- A folding pruning saw
- Handheld pruning shears
- Gloves (good quality rose gloves)
A good solid wheelbarrow is also nice to have for hauling your tools from plant to plant. Okay, now you can gather up your tools and something to put the debris into (I prefer a big plastic trash can), and let’s get started.
Each of the four groups of roses will require a different method of annual pruning. But for the continual pruning, there are some tasks that are common to ALL types. Let me discuss those first.
Pruning Steps Common to ALL Types
The following plant parts should be removed throughout the year as soon as they are noticed:
Suckers are shoots that develop from the base of the plant and are usually very vigorous. These suckers will have a smaller leaf, less glossy, and a lighter green color. Every so often, if you are not on top of things, you will see this light green stalk shooting directly up through the shrub and extending high above the plant. These shoots are growing from the rootstalk of the plant. Remember my discussion of the grafting of the desirable rose onto a stronger rootstalk?
Well, every so often a bud from this rootstalk will decide to grow. It will originate at or just below the soil line. This shoot will grow like crazy and rob the plant of energy that should be going into developing new stems and flowers. These suckers will eventually flower if you let them, but the flower will be very different and nothing too showy, probably white and small with only a few petals.
For these reasons, I suggest that remove these suckers as soon as they appear. With close inspection of the lower trunk of the plant you can see the graft point where most of the desirable canes originate, anything growing from below that needs to go. Make sure to cut them as flush with the main trunk as possible. If you leave a stub of the sucker, additional suckers will develop on the stub so make sure to remove it all.
All dead wood, from large canes to small stems, should be removed when found. If you have pruned your plants every spring like you should, it is likely that you won’t find much dead wood. About the only time I encounter dead wood is when I’m pruning a shrub that has been neglected for several years. These I call “project plants” and they can take a few years to reshape and re-invigorate. You will find that deadwood is much harder and more difficult to remove than the fresh young canes. You will probably need your loppers or even a small hand pruning saw to cut through the dead wood. Simply cut it out and dispose of it.
As with dead wood, you should remove diseased canes as soon as they appear. Be careful to distinguish diseased canes from diseased foliage. If the disease is still in the leaf then there is no reason to remove the entire cane.
You can treat Foliage disease with other methods. If a disease has advanced to the point where it has infected the stems, it should be removed manually with pruning tools. Diseased wood is generally black or brown. When you cut into it, the inside of the cane will be brown. Healthy wood will be light green inside.
There are two important points to remember: First, when you remove diseased wood, make sure that you cut below the diseased area so that all of it is removed. You can tell by looking closely at the piece you have cut to see if the cane looks fresh and green inside. If you see any black or brown streaks, you will need to cut again but lower down the cane until you can’t see any more discolored wood. The other point to remember is that once you have made a cut into diseased wood your clippers are now contaminated and each subsequent cut you will be spreading the disease.
I suggest you have a small cup of bleach diluted about 10/90 with water. Dip your clipper blade into it after each cut. This may sound like a lot of extra work but when you are removing diseased wood it is critical. Luckily, most rose diseases don’t make it into the cane before they are dealt with so this usually is not a big issue if you are on top of things.
Pruning Climbing Roses
With climbers, it is hard to generalize about techniques. It really depends on the situation. Climbers tend to shoot out very long canes during a spurt of growth in the spring. If you have a large structure that you want to cover, you will need to let these canes fully develop so that the next year’s growth will add length until the structure is fully covered.
After your structure is totally covered, I would attempt some annual pruning. Annually, I would selectively remove one-third of the canes to push energy into the remaining canes. I don’t mean cut one-third of each cane back I mean to cut one-third of the total number of canes all the way back to the base, older canes first if possible. This is no simple task. The long canes will be intertwined and you will need to cut them into sections and tug them out.
If you have a smaller structure, like an archway or arbor to cover, I would suggest leaving only two or three new canes per year. Cut everything else off. This will make it easier to train and maintain a good supply of fresh, young wood. Because they are such vigorous growers, climbers can become a lot of work. But, they are very forgiving.
Gardening should be Fun
Do what you can to follow these instructions but be sure to remember my #1 rule of gardening: It should be fun! In the worst case, just shear to contain once your structure has been covered. The shearing will help produce more blooms.
Remember that rose flowers form on this year’s growth. With climbers, it is really best to start your training program while they are very young as they can get away from you. The more aggressive growers will consume a structure and overwhelm it in a few seasons. The weight of the plant can cause issues. If the canes grow up into the eaves and the roof, they can cause structural issues. So, be watchful of that.
One last thought on climbers: I really like to see the large trunks that climbers can develop over time. They can really be quite attractive and interesting. Just be careful not to remove all the other canes and leave only the trunk because after few years the older wood won’t produce new canes.
Pruning Floribundas (multi-floras)
Most Floribunda types, like the popular Knockout varieties, are used as a groundcover, a hedge, or as a foundation plant. They are not typically planted for their blossoms alone, as with the Hybrid Teas. There are a few simple techniques to help contain Floribundas in a particular space. Let me remind you of the goals.
- Contain in desired space
- Increase flower production
- Increase shrub density
- Promote longer lives
Depending on the number of plants involved, Floribundas can usually be pruned as with any hedge, with a set of hedge shears. I prefer manual hedge shears with about a twelve-inch blade because you have better control. But, if there are too many plants to do manually, a good pair of power hedge-pruning shears is fine.
Time your first pruning so that the fear of frost is past but don’t wait too much longer because blossoms will begin to develop and you will be removing the first flush of flowers. If it’s necessary to maintain their shape it is fine to prune the floribundas throughout the growing season but you may sacrifice some blooms.
Following each pruning, a new flush of flowers will be produced so use caution in your frequency or you will remove the new blossoms. Once a month pruning is too frequent. I suggest trimming every eight to ten weeks during the growing season.
With these shrub types, the first pruning of the season should be the most severe. Determine where you want the maximum height and width to be and then remove one-third of the vegetation with your hedge shears.
SKETCH of 1/3rd
Each subsequent trimming should be less severe than the first. Just cut back enough to remove dead blossoms with your continual pruning. A new flush of flowers should appear in four to six weeks. Following the annual pruning, you can expect to trim two or three more times before winter hits.
The annual pruning, in spring, should help new growth develop down inside the plant, thus creating a denser plant and more flower production. It also tends to revitalize the plants, allowing them to live longer.
If you are one of those gardeners who must have a maniacally manicured garden, then I suggest that you not plant Floribunda roses. Either that or understand that you are “allowing” them to be a bit shaggy while they produce their new flowers. If Floribundas are constantly trimmed tightly, the plant will not produce any blooms. There are hedge plants that take the constant manicuring better.
Pruning Hybrid-Teas and Grandifloras (the really good stuff)
When most people talk about pruning roses it’s the Hybrids Teas about which they are usually speaking. These are the ones grown for their fabulous flowers and wonderful fragrances. They are the ones shown in competition and are the type of roses you give your honey. But as I said earlier, the thought of pruning the hybrids creates a bit of fear in some gardeners. If you are one of those with trepidations, here is a little secret that I hope will ease your concerns.
Roses are one of the most forgiving plants I know. There really isn’t much you can do to hurt them. If you make a cut too high or if you cut to an inward facing bud as opposed to an outward facing bud it’s really not a big deal because you can always make corrections next year. Simply learn from the results of your work, and adjust what you did the next spring.
Now, having said that, it does not mean that you can just whack and hack to your heart’s content without doing any damage. Poor pruning will lessen the quality and quantity of flowers and will create a funny-shaped plant. Bad pruning can also increase the chances of diseases on your plants by lessening air circulation and supporting weak canes.
Before we get to the “annual“ pruning, you can also expect to be doing some minor pruning with the Hybrid-Teas throughout the growing season in addition to the removal of suckers and dead and diseased wood. You will need to “deadhead” your plants regularly. So what is deadheading? If you are enjoying your flowers on the plant rather than cutting them for indoors, they will eventually complete the bloom cycle and drop their petals.
Deadheading is simply the removal of the spent flower, the “deadhead”, after the bloom fades. It is easy to perform and removal of the old flower will force new blossoms but it needs to be done correctly. Here is my deadheading technique. If you are cutting them for display indoors follow the same guidelines about where to cut that I explain below.
You will see, on the stem below the blossom, that there are sets of leaves that have developed. Typically the first few sets of leaves directly below the blossom will be deformed or misshapen. Either they will not have well formed leaflets or they will have only a couple of leaflets. You need to search below those for a well-formed set of leaves. The proper place to cut is above the first or second set of good quality, well-formed leaflets with three or five leaves on each leaflet.
Perfect leaf sketch
The purpose here is to cut back to a healthy bud and that is most likely to occur where you have a uniform, well-developed set of leaflets. I prefer to cut back to a set of five but a good set of three is fine. I’ll discuss exactly how to make the cut later.
Deadheading or cutting for display should be done throughout the season and will actually force the development of new flowers. So, feel free to cut as frequently as needed.
Annual Pruning of Hybrid Teas
Okay, here we go. This is the good stuff. First I’ll discuss the standard methods for creating beautiful roses and then I’ll touch on some common problem situations that develop with the Hybrids.
Here are a couple of minor cautions: When dealing with newly-planted roses, I suggest you don’t prune them the first year. Let them become established and get some size to them first. If you are buying from a quality grower, they will have already been pruned enough for a successful first year. Secondly, unless you have never seen a rose plant close-up you should know that roses have THORNS, pointy little teeth that are mean and just waiting to jab you. They love to draw blood, your blood. Believe me, at some point, no matter how many precautions you take you will get poked.
The goal is to minimize your pain. I suggest two things in this regard. First, invest in a good pair of specialized rose gloves. These are thick leather gloves that cover your entire forearm up to the elbows. Understand that these gloves will be only partially successful. Rose plants can always spot a chink in your armor and will find a way to poke you through or around the leather when your guard is down. That is why I always say a short prayer to the rose gods, too, for extra caution.
This will be only partially successful. Remember what I said earlier about roses having a temperament? Well, at some point, the rose plant will remind you she is only “allowing” you to cut her branches and it is she who is in charge. Don’t be surprised when you get a pointed reminder. So put on your gloves, say your prayer and let’s get on with it.
Remember our three main goals for pruning hybrid roses:
- Remove dead and diseased wood.
- Develop an open, vase-shaped plant.
- Grow beautiful flowers (and lots of them).
I approach the pruning with these three things in mind and always start with the removal of dead and diseased wood. This junk has to go. Besides, removal of dead and diseased wood makes it easier to see the structure of the remaining healthy plant. The dead wood can become quite hard and difficult to cut so you may need to use the loppers or even a pruning saw to cut through it. It is always best to remove 100% of the dead wood though sometimes, with older canes, you will need to leave a small stub of deadwood rather than cutting into healthy wood.
Once you have removed all the dead and diseased wood, remember to dip your clippers in a mixture of water and bleach (10/90). This should prevent the spread of any diseases to the healthy parts of the plant.
Step Away and Approach Again
While you are letting your clippers dry, it is time to step away from the plant for a while. Go get a glass of iced tea or a beer. It is essential that rose pruning be done while you are relaxed and not in a rush.
This is a once-a-year event, and what you do now will determine the quantity and quality of flowers for the entire next year. So, you need to do it with a clear mind and with a positive attitude. Make it an event. Involve the family. Include a picnic. Take some photos. But prune while you are unrushed and relaxed.
Once you are ready, and of the correct mindset, it is time to begin. Approach the individual plant and study its shape. Notice how its canes are structured. Examine its skeleton or bones. Don’t be concerned about the length of the canes yet. Try to visualize a vase shape in the canes. Some say that when sculpting, the true artist looks at a block of stone, sees his final image, and removes everything else. That is the same approach here.
First, we need to get a good view of the plant’s structure, its bones. I usually trim away some of the top growth so that I can see the plant’s cane structure better. I will adjust the height later. You may find it helpful to remove some top growth to get a clearer view, too. Just use caution and trim only what you need to see the cane structure.
Canes with Stuff on Top
Once you have a clear view, try to locate three, four or five canes that you want to leave. The cane should be last year’s growth (green and supple, never dark and woody) and should be evenly spaced around the plant and ideally sloping away from the center of the plant.
Picture a cone shape with canes at 12:00, 4:00 and 8:00 (three canes) or 12:00, 2:30, 4:30, 7:30 and 9:30 (five canes). I prefer an odd number of canes because it looks more natural. But, four can work too. You will never leave more than five canes and in most cases I usually leave only three unless it is an older plant with a well developed root system to support the bigger plant.
Once you have located the best potential canes, simply sculpt away by removing everything else. Your gloves are on. Right? Use your hand clippers and cut the unwanted growth away, making the cuts as flush to the base as possible.
If you are pruning your roses annually, then there should be plenty of fresh canes from which to choose your keepers. The canes you will be leaving need to be last year’s growth and will be green and soft. You CANNOT re-attach a cane. So go slowly and analyze carefully until you are an expert.
Once you have your “keeper” canes selected and have removed all the excess material, it is time to cut to height. I use a height goal of no less than twelve inches and no higher than eighteen inches for the final plant height. It is important that all the canes be cut to nearly the same height or the taller canes will overtake the lower canes and grow into a misshapen plant.
The bud location (I’ll discuss that next) will really determine the height of each cane. But, keep in mind your height goal range and the importance of matching cane heights as best you can. Remember you can always cut more off but you can’t put it back on, so go slowly here.
We are nearly done. But, the next step is extremely important to read this part twice if you need to. After you have removed everything except your three, four, or five canes, it is time to select the final cut location. This is a step that seems to confuse some people. It adds to their apprehension about rose pruning in general.
The goal here is to cause the new growth to be outward-facing so that the center of the plant will remain open (vase-shaped, remember?).
Look for buds or “nodes” in the twelve-to-eighteen inch area of each cane. Look closely. Examine each potential node. You should be able to see where a bud will be developing. Find a bud that is facing away from the center of the plant. That’s the one! If it is in the twelve-to-eighteen inch zone and it is pointing outward then that is perfect.
In most cases, you should be able to find one that’s close. If you have to, check-up or down the cane a bit, even outside of the 12 ”to 18” zone until you find one facing directly away from the center of the plant. Once you find the one, then cut the cane at an angle one-half inch (4mm) above the bud.
Some people stress over where to make the cut in relation to the bud. Stop stressing! The plant won’t die and your incorrect cutting won’t cause global warming to worsen.
If you make a mistake and cut too close to the desired bud, then the bud below will develop. If it is pointing the wrong way then remember: You can always cut it out next year!
Just shoot for a spot about a half-inch above the bud and cut it at an angle, not flat. A flat cut makes it easier for moisture to sit on the cut increasing the possibility of disease. A sloping, angular cut allows moisture to run off of the cut cane.
That’s it! Now was that so difficult? Other than cleaning up your mess, you are finished. If you decided to make this event a family affair, you have a built-in work force.
Have the kids grab a rake and pile up your clippings. I like to take a pair of loppers and, once I have everything in a pile, I chop away with the loppers to condense the pile.
Loppers also come in handy for picking up pieces and larger branches because the long handles keep you away from those thorns. Remember the thorns?
Once you have cleaned up, grab a refreshment, open that picnic basket, and admire your handiwork. I usually wait a couple of weeks then give my plants a shot of fertilizer. For now, I just give them a good soaking with the hose. For basic spring fertilizer, I suggest is a slow-release type of 10-10-10 applied per the instructions on the box.
After a long winter, your plants will be starving. They need the food to get off to a great start for the year. Healthy plants are happier. They will remember that you treated them kindly next year when it is, once again, time to prune your roses. With that, you’ve effectively learned how to prune roses for both annual and continual purposes.