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Rose Pruning Basics

January 01, 2008
Nanette Londeree

There seems to be a lot of mystery surrounding rose pruning, as well as lots of "rules" to follow in order to do it correctly. If I have learned anything over the last decade of pruning thousands of roses, it is that roses are very forgiving. If you cut too high, too low, at an inward facing bud rather than an outward facing one, in the long run, it really won’t make a lot of difference. If the resulting growth doesn’t develop in the fashion or direction you desire, cut it again to correct it. Once you realize that there is not too much you can do wrong, it makes the whole job much easier.

Admittedly, pruning roses is not a fun job. So why do it? The primary reason to prune a rose is to keep the plant healthy and productive—plants clothed in clean green foliage and abundant flowers. If you don’t prune, you’ll still get some blooms, they’ll just get progressively smaller and weaker and the plant will be more prone to disease. Foliage is likely to be sparse and the overall growth lanky. Pruning also allows you to control plant size and encourage it to grow in a particular shape or direction.
Now is the best time to prune modern roses—those that bloom repeatedly through the year and develop blossoms on new growth. In Marin’s moderate climate, roses don’t go into true dormancy; rather, they just take a short rest January to mid-February. It is not the time, however, to prune old garden roses or ones that flower only once a year. These plants develop flowers on last year’s growth, so if you prune them now, you’ll be removing all of your spring bloom.
To make the job as easy as possible, invest in a good pair of bypass shears and keep them oiled, adjusted and very sharp! Don't use anvil shears because they can cause damage to the plant. Long handled loppers are beneficial for cutting larger canes, as well as providing leverage to make cutting easier. Make sure they are also the pass-through type. A small pruning saw works well for very large canes and getting into places that cannot be reached with shears or loppers. Wear good, strong, durable gloves that are sturdy but flexible. Gloves with gauntlets that cover the forearm provide some added protection. Wear hard finish clothing, such as denim, and wear long sleeves. And pay attention to where you are placing your hands. Roses don't stick you; you stick yourself on the roses! Experienced pruners rarely get severely scratched, but it is a good idea to check to see if you have had a tetanus shot in the last 10 years.
You may want to remove any remaining leaves on the plant before making any cuts—it is easier to see the structure of the plant if it is devoid of foliage. Make your cuts about one-quarter inch above an outward facing bud (the reddish swellings or expanded band at the intersection of a cane and the base of a leaf with five leaflets) at a 45° angle with the cut slanting away from the bud. This slope allows water to run off the cut. It is not necessary to seal cuts.
While the amount and manner of pruning may vary a bit depending on the type of rose, the basic elements are the same. You can maintain a healthy rose by first cutting out the 3-D’s—dead, damaged or diseased growth. Dead wood looks brown and is dry when you cut into it and healthy, young growth is green outside, a creamy white inside. Remove any canes that cross, and thin interior growth to promote good air circulation. Reduce the plant by one-third to one-half its size, leaving three to five healthy canes, each at least as thick as a pencil. Keep the youngest canes—the gray, bark covered canes may be the largest, but these older canes won’t produce as much new growth as a younger one. The pruned rose should have a vase-like shape.
If you’ve got a repeat blooming climbing rose, the same process for pruning can be used with a couple of additions—shape the plant or reduce for size control. Prune only the lateral stems coming from the main cane, and leave three to five buds on each. Maintain major canes in a horizontal position to maximize bloom.
After you’ve completed your pruning, be sure to collect all the cuttings and dispose of them; don’t add them to a compost pile as they can carry disease producing microbes and spores.
Remember, roses are very forgiving. If you make cuts that are less than ideal, it won’t hurt the rose. Just like a bad haircut, it may look odd for a while, but it will grow back.
If you want more information on pruning roses, go to the Marin Rose Society website at www.marinrose.org, or attend the “Celebration of the Rose” on Saturday, January 26, 2008 at the Marin Art and Garden Center. There will be hands-on pruning demonstrations by expert Consulting Rosarians at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m., in addition to rose care classes and plant and bake sales.

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