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The Complete Guide to Pruning Roses in 5 Easy Steps

If there’s one thing certain to give new gardeners the cold sweats, it’s the thought of pruning rose bushes. I know you’ve probably heard of complicated terms like “45-degree-angle,” “bud eye,” “waxing moon,” “12-inches,” Elmer’s glue,” and “red underwear.” These terms are used more by those who grow roses for exhibition. Well, let me put your mind at ease.

You can forget you ever heard about 95 percent of those terms. And as for the other five percent, don’t sweat it. Most of those more complicated methods are for people who exhibit roses, not gardeners. 

Pruning Roses

But as a gardener, you just want a bush that has lots of beautiful, healthy flowers. And this guide will cover everything you need to know about pruning roses to give you the healthiest blooms and best-looking bushes in town!

Pruning Roses: What You Will Need

Pruning Roses
Spring pruning roses in the garden

Let’s start with gardening equipment. You’re not going to need much in the way of equipment, but it’s important to have very good quality tools to help you prune safely and effectively.

Gloves

High-quality gloves are going to be one of the most important things you need when pruning roses. I like gauntlet gloves because they go up to your arm a little bit and offer better protection for when you have to reach deeper into a thorny space.

Believe it or not, for some reason, folks don’t seem all that impressed when you show off battle scars from pruning rose bushes. Go figure.

Pruners

The next thing you’ll need for pruning roses is a high-quality pruner. Now, you want to get pruners that have what’s known as a bypass blade. What is that? When the blades close, they bypass each other.

On the other hand, you have anvil blades that meet together. They can crush a cane, whereas bypass pruners make a very clean cut.

You also want to look out for a pair with a rotating handle, which takes great pressure off your hands and wrist. Additionally, pick up a good pruner holder you can put on your belt or gardening belt bag. You never want just to set your bypass pruning shears on the ground as they will likely rust and corrode much faster.

Loppers

The next tool you want to get for pruning roses is a pair of high-quality loppers. It’s just a pair of pruners with longer handles. And like your pruners, you want a lopper with a bypass blade. Bypass loppers are great for thick canes. You get a lot more leverage with them.

Folding Saw

The last tool you want to pick up for pruning roses is a folding saw. A high-quality folding saw will let you get down near the base of your plant, where your pruners and loppers have a tough time reaching to cut off those old canes.

When to Start Pruning Roses

Pruning Roses

I like to let Mother Nature tell me when to prune. I usually look at other plants, such as forsythia. When they are blooming, that’s when I prune.

Also, you can look at your buds. When you see them beginning to swell, you’ll be able to see bud or leaf out. That’s going to tell you it’s time to prune. With some experience, you’ll be able to tell which buds are viable and which ones were taken out by the winter chill.

In general, you’ll need to prune repeat bloomers such as Easy Elegance and Knock-outs in the early spring, following the last frost. And there are single flush bloomers such as rugosa roses that benefit from light pruning after their blooms fade in the summer months.

Also, don’t worry if you see a lot of leaves. Wait about six weeks to seven after your last winter frost and go ahead and prune.

Step by Step Instructions to Pruning Roses

Pruning Roses

Okay, now that we’ve got the right equipment and know when to prune, it’s time to jump right into it. Here are the basics of rose pruning.

Step One: Remove Unproductive Stems and Dead Wood

Start off by sniping any wood that’s dead. I start with deadwood (dead canes or dead branches) to warm me up. It really gets your flow going and makes the task seem much more manageable. And the best part is you can’t make a mistake. I promise you’ll never prune a piece of deadwood and go, “Gosh, I need to put that back!”

Step Two: Trim Back Last Year’s Growth

Once you’ve gotten rid of all the dead canes, you’ll start to see the structure of your rose plant more clearly. Step two involves taking out thin or weak stems. These are usually very thin growths that don’t have a lot of structure to them. In other words, it won’t likely support a flower.

Step Three: Prune Out Any Inward or Crossing Facing Stems

Next, I take out the crossing canes. These are branches that grow toward the middle of the plant. They don’t produce many blooms anyway, and the branches can rub against and cause damage to more productive growths. So you want to cut those off to give you a less congested plant.

Step Four: Prune Back to Outward-Facing Bud

Once you’ve cleared your plant’s crossing canes, the structure will become even more visible. Now, this is the step where people get a bit confused. Pruning the outward-facing bud. It sounds complicated when you get into angles and whatnot. It’s really pretty simple.

First, let’s start with what is a bud eye? A bud eye is going to be a little outward swelling you see on a cane, almost like a red raised pimple, except, in this case, it’s a good thing.

When you cut just above that bud eye, the new growth will grow in the direction of that bud eye. The direction is very important as this will dictate how the plant forms. If I cut above the outward-facing bud eye, the plants will generate outward growth, but if I cut above the inward-facing bud eyes, they will cross each other.

So take that outward-facing bud eye and cut off everything one-quarter (1/4) above it. But, before you cut, you need to know the height you want to prune to.

Step Five: Height

When it comes to height, it’s a matter of personal taste. Prune to the height you want your plant to be. If your bush is in the back of the border, you may want to prune it a little higher. If it’s in the front, a little lower.

However, here’s a little tip, which is especially helpful if you’re growing hybrid tea roses. The lower you prune with hybrid teas, the longer the stem, and you’ll get larger blooms. You’ll get more blooms but a little smaller with shorter stems if you prune higher.

This is why people who exhibit prune down to 12-inches so they can get those beautiful long stems. But, if you prefer lots of flowers, leave them taller. The main thing is looking for outward-facing bud eyes that are around the same height. You want your height to be as consistent as possible.

Once you’re done, most of your plant should be gone. Don’t fuss too much about cutting too much of your growth. It will grow back better than ever. I promise!

Special Notes on Pruning Climbing Roses

Pruning Roses

The same basic rules for pruning roses apply to climbing roses, such as cutting deadwood for weak growth, but there are a few more things you’ll need to take care of to produce the best growths.

The thing you have to look out for with climbing roses is that you do not accidentally cut your main canes. You need to know the difference between your main canes and laterals.

With main canes, they will grow from the base of the plant. They form the structure. Laterals are the side shoots. They grow off the main canes.

You don’t cut your main cane back because climbers put their energy into growing first. They want to get to the right size before they flower.

Think of a fruit tree. When you plant a fruit tree, like an orange tree, you’re not going to see fruit for the first couple of years. Why? Because it’s just doing all of its growing.

However, the laterals are a different story. You cut them back all season long, anywhere from 12 to 14-inches off the main cane. They are the ones that produce your flowers.

So by timing back those laterals, you’re going to get more flowers.

And here’s one rule you don’t have to worry about with climbing roses. Don’t worry about what direction your bud eye faces. For climbing roses, it doesn’t matter.

Complete Guide to Pruning Roses: Final Thoughts

As you can see, pruning roses isn’t nearly as thorny as many people make it out to be. In fact, they are one of the easier plants to prune. You just need to ensure you have the proper high-quality equipment, prune at the right time, and then just follow the steps above for the best quality blooms and rose bushes year after year.

Looking for more pruning tips? Check out our pruning section!