In late winter and early spring, as our green thumbs are itching to get back in the garden, there are a few tasks that can be accomplished as we wait for warmer temperatures. Knowing when to cut back roses is one of those to-dos that fits within this pre-gardening season timeframe. I will say that a lot of roses, especially the newer varieties, are pretty low maintenance and don’t require a ton of care. If you are buying a small plant, it will take some time to become established, so you don’t necessarily have to touch it for the first couple of years or so.
However, once your rose becomes more established in the garden, pruning will promote a healthy growth habit. It will also maintain the rose plant at the size you’d like it to be.
Some benefits of cutting back roses
Besides improving and maintaining the shape of your plant, pruning rose stems, or canes as they’re called, offers other benefits:
- Cutting out dead or diseased branches helps prevent the spread of disease.
- It provides airflow and sunlight around the canes, which encourages healthy growth.
- Pruning can encourage new growth and more blooms throughout the growing season.
- Cutting back roses can maintain the shrub’s shape in the garden and prevent it from growing into other plants.
- Certain types of roses, like traditional English shrub roses can become leggy if left unpruned.
What you’ll need to prune a rose
Before you head outside, I highly recommend investing in a pair of rose gloves. These are thick gardening gloves, usually made of leather or suede or another heavy material, that have gauntlets covering your forearms and wrists. I discovered this wonderful glove invention out of necessity. The garden of my first home featured two huge old garden roses with thick canes and enormous thorns. I had a couple of run-ins before I was gifted a pair of rose gloves that protect your skin from the wrath of rose thorns. You may also want to wear long sleeves when pruning for a little extra arm protection.
You will also need your pruning implement of choice, such as bypass pruners. I have some heavy-duty hand pruners that work just fine with the size of my shrub. Loppers, which are similar to pruners, but with longer handles, can give you the grip and leverage needed to cut into heavier canes. They can also offer a bit of distance between your body and all the canes.
Make sure the blades of your pruners are sharp so you can make clean cuts, and clean (in the other sense) to avoid the spread of disease among other trees and shrubs in your yard.
When to cut back roses
The time of year to cut back roses is early spring, as the buds begin to emerge along the canes. At this point your rose is waking up from its winter dormancy. However, don’t be too eager. Avoid pruning too early in case the weather really takes a turn. A lot of rose publications will mention pruning when you see forsythia shrubs in bloom. This is usually around March, or April (or late February or May in some growing zones), depending on where you live and the type of spring it’s been.
Rambling roses, or ramblers, as they’re often called, are an exception in that the flowers form on old wood from the previous year’s growth. So for those varieties, it’s best to wait until after they’ve flowered to avoid cutting off this year’s blooms.
How to prune a rose
Years ago, I remember a friend, whose mom grew a lot of roses, drew me a diagram of where to make a cut and how. That advice was to prune your stem at about a 45-degree angle above an outward facing bud or bud eye, with the higher end being the one with the bud. But that has been addressed as a garden myth. Various rose societies and companies all maintain that you can cut on the angle or straight across. Neither will affect the health of the rose.
The main point to be made here is that you want the rose canes to grow outwards, not inwards, helping maintain good air circulation throughout the whole plant.
Begin by taking out any old wood right to ground level. I’ve found dead canes will sometimes snap right off with little effort. I use my pruners like tongs or tweezers to pick up the canes and deposit them in a yard bag or my garden trug.
Then, look for any errant branches that are pointing in a weird direction, like sideways or downwards, or that are touching other branches. You want the plant to fan upwards and outwards.
How much can you prune back?
You can prune back a rose by one third of its total height. This encourages a fuller plant as well as more leaf and bloom growth. If you worry you’ve cut back too much, don’t worry. In this case, roses are pretty resilient and forgiving. In other cases (pests and disease), they can be a little less resilient.
Be sure to clean up around the base of the plant. Remove old leaves and pieces of dead canes. Dispose of your canes in a yard bag and not a compost pile to prevent spreading disease.
Learn more about growing roses
- How to control rose pests organically
- Roses for containers
- Selecting low-maintenance roses
- How to plant roses
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