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Pruning Roses: Home

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at NYBG; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at NYBG; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Rose Classification

Rules for rose pruning are closely associated with the type of rose being pruned. There are many varieties of roses and the classification of roses can be confusing. The American Rose Society divides all roses into three basic types: Species Roses which include all wild roses, Old Garden Roses which existed before 1867, and Modern Roses that came into being after 1867. Within these last two groups there are various classes. Modern Roses have 13 classes and Old Garden Roses have 22.

Modern and Old Garden Rose Classifications

Modern Roses

Old Garden Roses

Old Garden Roses

Floribunda
Alba
Hybrid Sempervirens
Grandiflora
Ayrshire
Hybrid Setigera
Hybrid Kordesii
Bourbon
Hybrid Spinosissima
Hybrid Moyesii
Borsault
Misc. Old Garden Roses
Hybrid Musk
Centifolia
Moss
Hybrid Rugosa
Damask
Noisette
Hybrid Wichuriana
Hybrid Bracteata
Portland
Hybrid Tea
Hybrid China
Tea
Large Flowered Climber
Hybrid Eglanteria
Miniature
Hybrid Foetida
Mini-Flora
Hybrid Gallica
Polyantha
Hybrid Multiflora
Shrub
Hybrid Perpetual
Rosa Floral Fairy Tale is a modern Floribunda rose
Rosa 'Floral Fairy Tale'; a modern Floribunda rose

Rose Pruning

Here are some basic guidelines for pruning your roses. As a general rule of thumb, roses that flower only once in a season should be pruned right after flowering and roses that flower several times during the season should be pruned in late March or early April once the buds start to break (swell and green up): the adage is to prune your roses "when the forsythia blooms". Once-blooming roses flower on old wood and continuous-blooming roses flower on new wood.  Most Old Garden Roses flower only once; a few, such as 'Autumn Damask' and some Portlands, Hybrid Perpetuals, Bourbons, Chinas and Noisette roses tend to flower again. The majority of modern roses flower over a long period.

There are three main techniques for pruning roses:

  • Hard Pruning - drastic pruning where you cut the rose back to 3 to 5 buds per stem from the crown (the base) of the plant.
  • Thinning Out - cutting certain canes out at the base of the plant - usually done with old or diseased canes. It is also a way of opening up the center of a congested plant. As a general rule, take out ⅓ of the oldest canes in a rose so that it is continually rejuvenating.
  • Heading Back - this is a moderate pruning where the plant is cut back by ⅓.

Pruning Basics

  • Always remove dead, damaged and diseased wood.
  • Remove central wood where canes are crossing over each other and growing into the center of the plant. Crossing canes rub against each other and cause scars that allow infections to take hold. Removing central canes promotes good air circulation.
  • Find a healthy, outward-facing bud on a strong stem; cut the stem about ¼ inch above the bud and at a downward-facing, 45 degree angle. The angle should be away from the bud, so that water can run freely off the new cut.
  • If you have a grafted rose, remove any suckers that are emerging from the rootstock. Suckers will look different from the normal basal shoots on your rose. Make sure that you don't simply cut them down to the ground, otherwise they will re-sprout with even more vigor. Dig the ground away at the base of the plant, find out where they are emerging from the rootstock and cut them out. They will eventually take over the plant if left to grow.
  • When deadheading your rose or cutting its flowers for arrangements, cut back to a strong part of the stem where there is a leaf with five leaflets rather than just three leaflets. Cut just above an outward facing bud if possible. The new shoot will grow in the direction of the cut.

 (Bud Safe From Dying)     (Bud May Dry)     (Stub May Rot)           
Drawing from Virginia Cooperative Extension School website
 (www.ext.vt.edu/pubs/nursery/430-459/430.459.html) Publication Number 430-459, December 2002

 

General Rules

Hybrid Teas, Floribundas and Grandifloras

Prune in early spring when about half the buds are swollen, but before the leaves start to expand. Take off  ⅓ to ⅔ the length of the canes, cutting back to an outside bud. Reduce the plant to a total of 3 to 6 canes.  These roses respond well to hard pruning. The lower the pruning cut the stronger the new growth will be. A hard pruning encourages the growth of strong canes from the base of the plant that will produce the best flowers. When finished pruning these roses, the framework is anywhere from 6 inches to just over one foot tall.

Repeat Blooming Modern Shrubs and Repeat Blooming Old Garden Roses

These roses will bloom on new growth as well as laterals of one- and two-year old canes. Cut back main canes by half and laterals to just two buds. Thin out branches that are older than three years.

Repeat Blooming Climbing Roses

Do not prune a climbing rose for the first three years; only remove dead, damaged or diseased wood. After three years, cut back laterals in the early spring to two or three buds or about six inches. On a mature climber, selectively thin out older canes by cutting down to the base.

Knock Out Roses®

These popular roses grow to a mature size of 3 - 4' high and wide each year. To maintain vigorous growth, cut back canes with a clean pruner yearly to a height of 12 inches in late winter to early spring prompted by the new growth buds showing. (For Petite Knock Out Roses®, prune back  to 1/3rd the size you would like the plant to be at maturity.)

Once Blooming Modern Shrub and Old Garden Roses

Prune in mid-summer after flowering (usually mid- to late-June). Prune these shrubs lightly to shape them. They generally do not need a severe pruning but benefit from being thinned out.

 

Rosa 'Climbing China Doll' is a modern Polyantha rose
Rosa 'Climbing China Doll' is a modern Polyantha rose

Fall Pruning

Some people like to prune their roses in the fall. If you are covering your roses up for the winter and protecting them with burlap or a wire cage stuffed with leaves, pruning will be necessary to reduce the size of the rose. But pruning stimulates a plant to produce new growth, and tender growth at the end of the season is at greater risk of winter damage which can lead to further plant die-back during the winter.

Here, in the NYBG Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, we pull mulch up around the base of the rose in late fall to form a 6 to 8 inch mound. This creates a protective winter coat that is removed in early spring. Roses are not pruned at this time of year since there is no way of anticipating which branches will die or be damaged during the winter and which ones will survive. The selection process is therefore made in the spring. An exception would be if a rose were too large and there was concern about the stability of the rose and the possibility of wind damage. Then, the rose would be pruned back to a more compact shape.

You can read more about special circumstances that may call for fall pruning of roses in our guide Rose Problems.

 

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