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How to prune roses

Val Bourne / 27 January 2015

Read our guide to pruning roses - including how to prune the many different varieties of roses.

Pruning roses
How and when to prune roses

When to prune roses

February is a good time to prune roses, but do make sure that the weather is clement. You must never prune anything in freezing conditions. Give yourself plenty of time, use a good pair of sharp secateurs (such as Felco no 2 or 6), wear gloves and thick clothing. If you’re tackling rambling roses with long stems, or very thorny ones, wear goggles too.

How to know what to cut

Healthy rose stems look olive-green. However dead, diseased or dying wood ( known as the 3Ds) looks brown and needs to be removed. Then look for any stems that head inwards, or cross and chafe against each other, and remove these to create an airy shape of strong healthy branches.

How to prune roses

Look for outward-facing buds and make a slanting cut downwards away from the bud, about a quarter of an inch ( 5 mm) above it and then the rain can drain away from the growing tip. Upright, repeat-flowering hybrid teas are cut back to six inches ( 15 cm). Floribundas, shorter roses that produce clusters of flowers, are reduced to eighteen inches ( 45 cm). Shrub Roses with long wands, are generally reduced in length by a third.

Feed all your roses once spring arrives. Vitax Q4 is excellent, and then feed repeat-flowering roses again - after their first flush.

Why prune roses

Pruning roses makes them more vigorous and it’s possible to rejuvenate an old rose bush, although it will take time to recover. A pruning saw is useful if the rose is very woody.

Pruning roses reduces disease because you are creating an airy shape that allows the air to pass through the bush. This helps reduce blackspot.

Removing any dull brown stems helps to prevent the spread of rose dieback. Cut all dead stems back into healthy wood, which looks white and pithy.

Pruning helps to shape a rose, preventing it from becoming leggy.

Well-pruned roses live longer and perform better.

How much to cut off

Different roses have different regimes so it’s useful to know what type of rose you have.

If you know the name use Rose Locator to find out what type of rose it is.

Pruning hybrid teas

Hybrid teas are stiff roses that repeat flower and they normally have large, fragrant flowers that emerge from large scrolled buds, usually one rose per stem. They get tall and leggy if not pruned. Most modern hybrid teas can be cut back hard to as low as six inches ( 15 cm). It is also advisable to cut away one or two of the oldest stems if there are more than five or six strong leaders.

Pruning floribundas

Floribundas are normally shorter and bushier. They produce clusters of flowers, but are not as vigorous as hybrid teas. The best height to cut back to is eighteen inches ( 45 cm). If you have tired floribundas you can be harder and go back to six inches. However, your roses will take two years to rejuvenate fully.

Pruning English shrub roses and other repeat-flowering shrub roses

David Austin recommends pruning your established shrub roses to approximately half their size, aiming to create a balanced roundel of growth. However first year roses, that are still becoming established, need a lighter regime. Leave two thirds of the shrub intact.

Pruning old-fashioned roses that flower once

These are not as vigorous generally. Cut a third of each leader away after the 3Ds and congested stems have been removed.

Pruning climbing roses

Climbing roses are very variable in habit and some, like 'Madame Alfred Carrière‘, will scale a north wall whilst others, like the lovely pink ‘Aloha’ barely cover a pillar.

Whatever their vigour, try to train your climbers from the very beginning if possible by bending the new growth round an upright, or looping it over the horizontals of a pergola, rather like a looper caterpillar. This will slow down the sap and produce more flowering buds lower down.

Pruning rambling roses

Ramblers are usually vigorous roses that flower only once. They produce new leaders from the base and these should be tied in during November whilst the growth is still pliable. The usual technique is to cut away some of the old stems so that you end up with between five and nine leaders - depending on size and habit.

Read our guide to the difference between rambling and climbing roses.

Pruning hybrid musks

This is one group of roses that seem to resent being pruned, particularly ‘Buff Beauty’. Just remove the 3 Ds and any chafing stems. If you cut them back hard they send out spindly long shoots and it ruins their shape.

Tips for pruning roses

Dress up for the job and choose a day when you have enough time.

Always use sharp secateurs and wear thick gloves. Have a pruning saw ready too.

Study each plant carefully before pruning.

Start by removing any dead, dying or diseased wood - the 3 Ds.

Remove any crossing branches.

If you see dark marks inside the rose stem after pruning you need to cut lower until you reach white wood.

Cuts should be no more than 5mm (¼ in) above a bud and should slope away from the bud, so that water runs away from the growing tip.

Cut to an outward-facing bud to encourage an open-centred shape.

Cut to the appropriate height, if a dormant bud is not visible.

Cuts must be clean, so keep your secateurs sharp. For larger stems, use loppers or a pruning saw.

Thin the stems. Encourage the newer stems by cutting away some of the old tired stems as the latter can be reservoirs of disease.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.