If you’ve ever been in a nursery in early spring, you probably have seen bare root roses that look more like sticks than anything else. And when pruning roses in the spring, that’s kind of the goal. Purposefully cut sticks.
All roses benefit from a nice haircut just before the plant breaks dormancy after spring’s final frost. It allows them to build up energy for the budding season to follow, helps to remove dead and diseased canes, and defines how your rose bush will look when in bloom. In the Pacific Northwest, you can choose how far back to prune based on your desired outcome. If you want larger blooms but can live with fewer of them, cutting back the plant to three or four canes (6-10” long) is the way to go.
If you are looking for a larger bush, leave more canes and keep them a bit longer (18-24”). For lots of short-stemmed flowers, pruning less than a third of the plant works best.
It is important to use a sharp pair of pruning shears. Make sure to choose a pair with both blades curved for the best cut. Avoid using “anvil” pruners as they tend to crush the stems instead of cut them. It is nice to have a good pair of rose pruning gloves with gauntlets that protect your forearm from nasty thorns. Finally, if you will be cutting canes larger than ½”, a sealant is important to prevent insects and disease.
So, how do you prune a rose bush? There are a few basic concepts that apply to all varieties of rose bushes.
1. Always prune back dead wood until you see healthy green tissue. Sometimes this means pruning all the way back to the crown (center where everything grows from).
2. Remove all suckers from the base of the plant. Suckers are limbs that grow straight up out of the crown or roots and have little or no side stems. If left alone, they will “suck” nutrients away from the actual bush.
3. Every cut should be at a 45-degree angle about a ¼” above an outside facing bud.
4. The main goal of pruning is to open up the center of the rose bush to allow good airflow, thus supporting the overall health of the bush.
And then, there are a few more detailed options for specific varieties.
1. HYBRID TEA, GRANDIFLORA, and FLORIBUNDA – Maintain three to six strong center canes, removing any stems that overlap to create a vase-like shape and allowing for good air circulation.
2. SHRUB and ENGLISH – Maintain six to eight strong canes. Once established, prune lightly by cutting back about a third of the shrub.
3. TREE ROSE – Cut any stems that grow below the upper bud junction to maintain the look of a tree. Otherwise, maintain six to eight main canes in an open shape.
4. MINIATURE ROSE – Trim just to maintain the appearance you like.
5. CLIMBING ROSE – Maintain six to eight strong canes. Shape the head symmetrically leaving three to four buds per lateral limb
While rose pruning can seem scary at first, rest assured that there is little you can do to completely kill a rose bush just by pruning. It can handle a pretty hefty haircut. But by keeping in mind the basic concepts, you can encourage your rose bush to bloom prolifically for years to come.