Pruning roses is very intimidating to many gardeners but it needn’t be. You don’t need to be a rosarian and know all the rose categories and classes in order to prune roses. What is most important to know is whether it is a repeat bloomer or once bloomer, whether it blooms on old wood, new wood or both, whether it is a bush or a climber and whether it is a modern rose, old rose or species rose. Basically, all rose types start off with the same basic pruning in spring and then additional pruning depends on the answers to above. If you happen to also know the specific rose category that also can be helpful.
General Rose Pruning for All Types of Roses
Remove any broken, dead, dying or diseased wood as well as any crossing or badly placed branches and any sucker growth below the graft. This type of pruning should be done in early spring, just as the buds are beginning to swell. When your forsythia is blooming you will know it is time to prune your roses. Generally, all roses should additionally be pruned to open the center of the plant to both light and air circulation and to remove a few of the oldest canes near the base to make room for younger new growth that is more vigorous and will flower better. Repeat bloomers, that bloom on new wood have this wood thinned out in the early spring whereas once bloomers and roses blooming on both old and new wood have this type of pruning done after flowering. Cuts should be made about 1/4 inch above an out facing bud (cutting to close to a bud may cause the bud to fail and cause branch dieback). There is no need to make the cut on a 45-degree angle as many sources claim, as science has not proven this.
More Specific Pruning Requirements
The type of rose, whether it blooms on old or new wood and whether it blooms just once per year or repeatedly all affects specific pruning requirements.
Most of the roses currently for sale at your local nursery are modern roses. Defined as being a cultivar that was created after 1867. According to the American rose society there are over 37,000 registered modern rose cultivars. These include English Roses, Hybrid Tea Roses, Floribunda Roses, Polyantha, Grandiflora, Miniature, Landscape, Groundcover, Shrub roses, climbers, Rambling roses and others.
Hybrid Tea Roses
The hybrid tea rose was the first modern rose, not to be confused with tea roses, which are an old rose and require less pruning. Hybrid tea roses are extremely popular in-home gardens, coveted for their large, usually single blossom that is formed at the end of long stems. To begin pruning these roses first follow the general rose pruning instructions described above. Once the general pruning is completed some of the oldest canes are typically removed near the base to make way for some new more vigorous canes. Although canes can produce blooms for up to 10 years the best flowering occurs on canes that are 2 to 4 years old. The remaining canes are then shortened to, anywhere from 2-6 buds (25 to 45 cm or 10-18in). How hard you cut back your hybrid tea roses will depend on how large you want the plant to be and the size of the blossoms you desire. As a general rule the harder you prune back your rose the larger but fewer the blooms. Hard pruning will also produce a smaller plant that blooms later.
After your first flush of blooms deadhead the faded blooms back to a 1/4″ above an out facing five-leaflet leaf (less than 5 leaflets usually will not form a blossom, this is true for all rose types). Typically, the rose will produce a new flower ever 6-7 weeks if deadheaded in this way. Stop deadheading spent blooms about 6 weeks before freeze up to give the rose a chance to harden off before winter. Canes that are very long can also be shortened at this time a bit to prevent them from whipping around in the winter.
Polyantha, Floribunda and Grandiflora Roses
Polyantha, Floribunda and Grandiflora roses are all pruned similar to hybrid tea roses but usually left a little taller about 45 cm (18 in) or more. The polyantha rose is the oldest of the three and not as popular in commerce today as the Floribunda and Grandiflora. It is the smaller of the three growing about 60-90 cm (2-3 ft.) and requires the least pruning. After completing the basic rose pruning their height is usually reduced by about 1/4 to 1/3. Polyanthas are a repeat bloomer with continuous clusters of small flowers at the end of each stem and as such require deadheading when the blooms fade to keep them blooming.
Floribundas which are a cross between polyanthas and hybrid tea roses look similar to hybrid tea roses except the are usually a bit shorter, bushier and have large clusters of smaller flowers at the end of each branch. They also bloom continuously, rather in cycles like the hybrid tea roses. Prune them as you would prune your hybrid tea rose but leave them a little taller 45cm (18 inches) or more. This type of rose is often grown as a hedge.
Grandifloras are a hybrid cross between floribunda roses and hybrid tea roses. They look very similar to hybrid tea roses except they have clusters of large flowers at the tips of their branches. They also bloom in cycles like the hybrid tea roses. Prune them as you would a hybrid tea rose but leave them a little taller 45cm (18 inches) or more.
Climbing roses are not an actual class of rose but rather refers to the way in which they grow. Modern climbers can be hybrid tea roses, Polyantha, floribundas or grandifloras. There are even some old roses still in cultivation that can be grown as climbers.
Repeat Blooming Climbing Roses: When pruning your climbing rose the goal is to create a permanent framework of main canes that are healthy (not diseased), do not rub against each other, do not grow out front of the plant in a direction that will be in the way and will not be able to be tied to the frame, and are pliable enough to be trained and tied in horizontally. Depending on how many main canes you have, up to 1/3 can be cut back to the ground to force new main canes that will be more vigorous and bloom better. Canes may also be shortened by up to 1/3 if required. This pruning is done in early spring. Once you have your main stems pruned turn your attention to the lateral canes (the canes that grow off of the main canes). These lateral canes are pruned back to two buds from the main cane either to an out facing bud or an in facing bud, depending on how it will be tied to the frame. When training your rose in a fan shape along a fence, railing or posts and wires prune off lateral canes that are growing down or at an angle, and leave only the laterals than go straight up. If you plan to pillar the rose the laterals may be pruned up or down, depending on how you plan to tie it on to the support. Once all of this pruning is done your main rose canes are ready to be tied into the frame, which may be a railing, posts and wires, a tall pole, an obelisk, etc. The key here is to have them running horizontally, between 90 and 45 degrees. This will produce blooms all the way along the cane on the laterals, rather than just blooming at the tip top of the main cane. Zip ties work well for securing these main canes, do not make them too tight. Once the flowers have pretty much faded deadhead the lateral canes back to a set of 5 leaflets, pillar roses may be deadheaded back to 2 bud eyes from the main cane.
Once Blooming Climbers and Ramblers: generally, put on one abundant flush of flowers in early summer (June). This type is not pruned hard as outlined above. Rather they are only lightly pruned in spring to remove dead, broken or diseased wood (general rose pruning). Once the rose plant has finished blooming, they are pruned immediately. Remove older unproductive main canes. Shorten overly long main canes and shorten lateral canes like described above and tie the rose into its frame. It will put on a new flush of growth that will bare next year’s blooms.
In early spring after the basic pruning is done shorten the height by about 1/3, occasionally cut away and old stem to the base. It used to be recommended to remove all weak and spindly growth, but researchers found that leaving this on the plant makes for a stronger healthier plant (more photosynthesis area). Dead head flowers after they fade.
Modern Shrub Roses
Modern shrub roses are an actual category of rose. The name is not referring so much as to how the plant grows but rather is a group of modern roses that do not fit in any of the other classes. To prune these roses, complete the basic spring pruning then prune to maintain size and shape. Some of these roses, like the knockout series and ground cover roses are self-cleaning and do not require deadheading.
Generally old roses (heirloom roses) are more lightly pruned than modern roses. Old roses fall into two groups, repeat bloomers and once bloomers.
Repeat bloomers include tea roses, China, bourbon, noisettes, Portland’s and hybrid perpetuals. To prune these roses, complete the basic spring pruning but only light prune them to shape them a bit as they bloom on both old and new wood. After the first flush of flowers deadhead and lightly prune. After the second flush prune the plant harder, removing up to 1/3 of older canes near the base and cutting the entire plant back by about 1/3.
Once bloomers include damask roses, alba, centifolia, gallica and moss roses. These roses bloom early in the season, June in my area. Prune lightly in early spring only enough to remove the dead, broken, diseased and rubbing branches. After they have bloomed remove some of the oldest stems to the ground to make way for new more vigorous canes.
The single, five petaled blooms on these roses are quite fragrant and bloom once on old wood early in the season. Complete basic pruning in early spring then after flowering cut a few older canes near the base to encourage some new, more vigorous shoots. The plants can be shortened by about 1/3 at this time.
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Botanica’s Pocket Roses by Könemann
The Pruning Book by Lee Reich
Complete Roses by Field Roebuck
The Royal Horticultural Society Pruning and Training by Christopher Brickell and David Joyce