How to Prune Roses and Rose Bushes

Pruning Roses

A great deal has been written about the pruning of roses, much of it sensible, but some is liable to confuse the newcomer to rose growing. Pruning is of course of considerable interest to rosarians, and is a subject that causes much discussion and even controversy among keen rose growers. The beginner, however; would be justified in posing the question ‘why prune?’, and indeed in querying whether it is really necessary.

How to Prune Roses

how to prune roses

Roses can sometimes be seen flowering away in somewhat neglected gardens where little attention has been given to pruning. This is permissible for a season, but closer inspection over a longer period will reveal a considerable amount of deterioration in the plants. Long, untidy, straggling growths will predominate, with few flowers and those few of poor quality. Usually the bush becomes cluttered with dead and diseased growth, and sometimes it will be dominated by suckers from the rootstock, presenting a derelict appearance quite unacceptable to anyone who loves gardens. Contrast this with the garden where the roses have been pruned intelligently so as to encourage strong healthy growth by removing old and worn wood. Shaping the bush so that it fits into its surroundings is also particularly important in small gardens. From this it should be clear that in order to produce good results pruning is necessary.

Roses vary widely in habit, from the tiny miniatures, which can be invaluable in very small gardens and window boxes, to the mighty scramblers which are acceptable only in large gardens. Variation in habit calls for variation in treatment, but this need not be confusing if the basic principles are understood. This essentially means the removal of any dead or diseased growths, as well as those which have become old, weak, or unproductive. It is extremely important that light and air reach the centre of the plant, so any cross growths which impede this should be removed at source. Weak growths or those damaged in any way are unlikely to produce good flowers, so these too are better removed.

Readers of this site will probably be mainly concerned with hybrid tea and floribunda roses, which are more easily accommodated in small gardens and also in general flower over a longer period.

These types of rose produce their flowers on growth of the current year, as do climbers. Ramblers, species roses (the wild roses), many shrub roses, and old garden roses generally flower on growths made in the previous year. It is important therefore to know which group you are dealing with, otherwise you may prune away the flowering growths.


When to prune

When pruning should be done has always been fiercely debated, but it should really depend, predominantly, on climate and conditions. Those who are fortunate enough to live in warm areas, especially if close to the sea and perhaps under the influence of the Gulf Stream, can prune early, in about November. In more austere environments, such as exposed gardens on the eastern coast of England, those in the north, and those at high altitudes, it is usual to shorten back long growths at this time to prevent ‘wind rock’, but to leave the main pruning to March or April. The farther north and the more exposed the garden is, the later should pruning be carried out. Pruning during periods of severe frost should be avoided if possible, as damage may occur. Planning to prune at a certain time can be unsatisfactory; weather conditions should be taken into account, and these obviously can vary from year to year.


How to prune

Beginners pruning hybrid tea roses that are maiden trees (that is, first-year plants), should prune them fairly severely, cutting the growths back to two or three eyes from the base so that the uppermost eye faces outwards. (An ‘eye’ is an undeveloped growth bud that appears in the axil of a leaf — that is the angle between the stem and the leaf stalk.) Good plants will generally have three or four strong growths, which will be enough to make a well-balanced bush. When a plant is estabfished after the initial year’s growth, moderate pruning to five or six eyes will produce the best shape for the garden, but care must be taken to remove completely all small, twiggy growths. Always aim for an open, cup-shaped formation, cutting away any growths which tend to clutter up the centre. All soft, unripened growths should be cut out completely, especially in northern and exposed gardens. In these gardens after a severe winter, hard pruning may be necessary, as it is only by doing so that sound wood near the base of the plant will be left. Growths affected by frost will have brown pith, so cutting back until white pith is found is necessary.

Some varieties produce basal growths, and these should be encouraged by cutting out older growths to give the new growths room. Pruning back one growth each year almost to ground level often induces these basal growths to form, thus ensuring young replacement wood and preventing leggy trees from developing.

Pruning cuts should be sloping, the highest point being about 6 mm (1 in) above the eye with the lowest point behind, but not touching, the eye. A sharp pair of secateurs should be used to make a clean cut.

Pruning floribunda roses is carried out as for hybrid teas in the first year. Afterwards lighter pruning is sufficient, as masses of flowers are expected from this type. Many floribundas break very freely from near the base of the plant, a trend readily encouraged by removal of older growths when the opportunity arises, and shortening young growths by a third.

Miniature roses sometimes require slightly different treatment. Normal growths can be pruned back to three or four eyes, cutting out weak growths. Some varieties are apt to produce very strong growths which spoil the symmetry of the plant. These should be removed entirely or cut back severely to maintain the compact habit which is desirable in this type of rose.

Standard roses (or tree roses, as they are sometimes known) are popular with many amateurs, and they can be useful in small gardens for adding height to a bed. Generally they have been derived from hybrid tea or floribunda roses, so the treatment advocated for bush roses can be applied. However, I prefer to prune these roses severely because they derive their nourishment through one long stem, which sometimes restricts vigour. If they are only lightly pruned and a large head develops they are likely to be damaged by wind, especially in open and exposed gardens. I would generally prune to three or four eyes in order to prevent this.

Weeping standards seem to have lost favour to a certain extent, but when they are grown the best results are obtained from those which produce pendulous growth. The R. wichuraiana varieties such as ‘Crimson Shower’ are ideal for this purpose. Pruning away the old flowering growths after they have flowered is all that is required if sufficient young growths have been produced. If they have not, it is advisable to retain some of the older growths, reducing side growths to about one or two eyes.

Some of our most attractive climbing roses are sports from bush hybrid teas; like their parents they produce flowers on growths of the current year. Some are very vigorous and inclined to produce growth at the expense of flowers if they are subjected to much pruning. If these strong growths are trained horizontally on a wall or fence, lateral flowering growths are induced which will produce flowers. These can be shortened back to a couple of eyes in the spring. Vigorous young growths are also produced from the base by some varieties, and if possible these should be retained, older growth being cut away in order to accommodate them. Unripe tip growths or those which encroach beyond their allotted space should also be removed.

Rose species and their hybrids seldom require pruning except to keep them to their allotted space. Dead growths, of course, are valueless and should be removed, as should the occasional old growth, especially if young growths near the base require room.

Ramblers bred from R. wichuraiana, such as ‘Crimson Shower’, should be pruned as soon as flowering is over by removal of the old flowering growths. September is generally the time for this. Hybrids such as the favourites ‘Albertine’ and ‘Alberic Barbier’ do not produce young basal growths in this manner and have to have a growth or two cut back before they will do so. Likewise, growths higher up have to be cut back to where young growths have started. Young growths should of course be retained and laterals (side shoots) reduced to two or three eyes in spring.

Repeat-flowering climbers generally flower on lateral growths, which should be pruned back to a few eyes in autumn. Young growths should be trained horizontally or spiralled around poles or tripods to produce flowering laterals and young basal growth. Old flower heads should be removed, unless hips are wanted, in order to extend the season of flowering.

For those with larger gardens, shrub roses have long been popular. Few of these require pruning the first season after planting. Most shrub roses flower on the previous season’s growth, so this can be encouraged by removing shoots that have flowered back to a strong young growth. Any dead or exhausted growths can be cut back to the base of the plant.

Very vigorous shrubs benefit from the removal of at least some old woody stems and any weak or worn-out growths. Very strong growths may be reduced by a third in order to lessen wind rock and to improve shape.

Several types of roses are useful as informal hedges. Rugosa roses, sweet briar, Scotch roses, and Rosa gallica officinalis (‘Versicolor’) in particular are suitable. These can be trimmed with shears during the winter months, as many formal hedges are. Many other shrub roses and vigorous floribundas may also be used in hedges, but they are better pruned by secateurs.


11. March 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Pruning, Pruning Roses, Roses | Tags: , , | Comments Off on How to Prune Roses and Rose Bushes


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: