How to Prune a Rose Bush

David Squire writes in his fine book Pruning, “Regrettably, there has developed a mystique about pruning roses that has deterred many gardeners from growing them, and yet these floriferous shrubs are some of the most tolerant of all garden shrubs to bad pruning.”

I offer as brief a synopsis as possible. Pruning should be done in the late fall or early spring. Take care not to cut too close to a bud; about a quarter of an inch above an outward facing bud, cutting down and away from the bud on a 45 degree angle. Too far above the bud allows dead tissue to develop disease; too close and there won’t be enough stem to support the bud.

When to Prune a Rose

Now that you know how to prune, you need to know when. Generally we should prune Hybrid Teas, Grandifloras, and Floribundas in very early spring. A good rule of thumb is to do it when the forsythia is in bloom. The first task is to eliminate suckers that have started below the soil. Most roses today are grafted onto rootstock that won’t look anything like the rose you want.

Then we need to eliminate dead wood. Cut gradually back along the cane until you hit white healthy pith. Next we want to select three or four canes that will form the frame of the plant. Cut everything else off entirely. Now cut those canes back to between 6 and 12 inches. If the rose is healthy and in fertile soil, then leaving canes around a foot long should develop a good plant. If the plant has been neglected and gotten leggy, or if you are planting a new rose, then cutting back to the six-inch mark should encourage strong new canes from the base.

Never hard prune Floribundas as they don’t break well from old wood. Climbers should have their laterals cut back to three or four eyes and any new canes breaking from the base should be eliminated (unless you want to develop a new cane). Species roses (and most shrubs) should be tip pruned each fall. This will encourage new growth from the base. In the spring cut out the laterals and the old canes, leaving the new canes from the previous year (the ones that didn’t flower). Always cut dead or diseased wood and always use some judgment. If a plant doesn’t appear vigorous then pruning it to a nub probably won’t help it much. Use discretion.

Certain types of standard roses or pillars require special techniques. As always the dead wood must go, along with any weak or crossed branches. The rest should be cut back to six eyes or so and half that on laterals. On pillar grown roses you should grow the plant up on support. Cut back all the laterals and select canes evenly around the pillar. When the pillar is established cut out all old wood and select the previous year’s canes.

How to Feed a Rose

Roses are hungry feeders. You should fertilize with a food that is a little heavier on the phosphorus (middle number in the three). Improving the soil is recommended to increase the water and fertilizer retention. While species and shrub roses will make do with most any soil, Hybrid Teas need a highly fertile and organic soil to do well at all. Manure, mushroom compost, or any other highly organic additives are a necessity for a good Hybrid Tea rose. A good organic mulch will go a long way towards improving the soil fertility from year to year, as well as increasing water retention. DO NOT use wood chips or a poorly composted bark product. These require nitrogen to decompose and will rob your rose of nutrients.

If you have been looking for a reason to start a compost pile, there is no better reason than mulching. Compost will actually add nutrients to the soil along with beneficial microbes. A quick scratch with a hoe will easily eliminate any weeds and keep the soil loose and fluffy. Roses detest any sort of competition so do not fall prey to the temptation of planting closely around roses. Dusting with rose powder is recommended for tea roses to keep off black spot and powdery mildew. These can be fatal diseases for your average Hybrid Tea rose, although not a big problem for your shrub and species roses. Many of the newer roses are bred specifically for disease resistance.

Overwintering: How to Care for Roses in Winter

Most manuals will tell you to do a late pruning, and then if you’re in a cold winter climate (generally defined as Zone 6 and below), you should pile mulch or soil up around the canes to help the plant live through the winter. Stakes around the plant with a wrapping of burlap will provide a good shelter, as would pine boughs or some other evergreen branches. It is especially important to protect the bud union (where the top scion meets the rootstock). This should be done just after the ground has frozen. Tree roses should be tipped and buried or grown in a patio container that can be over wintered in a sheltered area.

Be Realistic When Selecting a Rose Plant

Most of the information provided here applies specifically to Hybrid Teas although all roses are going to thrive with this kind of care. Decide (realistically!) how much effort you are going to put into your roses.

Think of it as getting a new puppy. While (thankfully) the rose won’t mess your carpets or chew your slippers, it will require regular attention and a modicum of effort to keep it looking its best. If you are looking for roses that don’t require puppy maintenance try rugosas or one of the modern shrubs. These offer increased hardiness and disease resistance in a variety of forms and colors. Truly there is a rose for any garden and with just a little thought you can find the right rose for yours.