Hort Q&A: How to prune roses

Carla Smith, horticulture educator
Pottawatomie County Extension Service

How do I prune my roses? 

Rose plants need pruning to tidy up their appearance, control size, and improve their vigor, growing habits, and bloom. Pruning methods vary according to the type of rose plant. To keep them in bounds, spring pruning usually is more drastic. Prune about three to four weeks before the average date of the last killing frost in your area. In most of Oklahoma that would be around the 15th of March. We are pushing this date a little later this year with the winter blast we had. An exception to this rule involves climbing roses, which need to be pruned after flowering in early spring.

Probably no other aspect of growing roses has aroused as many questions as has the subject of when and how to prune roses. By following a few simple rules, you can improve their appearance and vigor and control the quality and quantity of the flowers. Some fundamental practices of pruning roses correctly in all gardens, regardless of type, are: 1) remove any canes that have been damaged by insects, diseases or storms; 2) remove one of two canes which may be rubbing one another; and 3) remove canes that are spindly or smaller in diameter than the size of a pencil. After pruning, according to these general recommendations, cut hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras and polyanthas back to 12 inches for large flowers and 18 to 24 inches for many smaller sized flowers.

Climbing roses generally are pruned to renew plant vigor by removing the old canes since the most productive and finest blooms on climbers are produced on canes that arise from the bottom of the plant the previous year. These newer canes produce more desirable growth and flowers. Since the canes may become quite long, it is necessary to prune them back so they are maintained in the desirable area.

Old fashion or antique roses require much less pruning than modern roses. Left unpruned old fashion roses will naturally obtain a rounded shrub shape. Pruning of these roses should be confined to some shaping of the plant, removal of damaged branches, and judicious trimming back to encourage growth.

On all roses, consider the cutting of the flowers as a form of pruning. When gathering roses, always leave at least two sets of leaves on the branch from which you cut the flower to insure plant vigor. When removing faded, spent flowers, cut only as far as the first five-leaflet leaf. Make cuts on the ends of branches at 45-degree angles just slightly above an outside facing bud with the lowest point on the side opposite the bud, but not below the bud itself. Never leave stubs when removing branches, since these die and can cause problems on the plant later. Always remove branches by cutting to a lateral branch or bud, or back to the base of the rose plant.

For more information on growing roses in Oklahoma see fact sheet HLA-6403 Roses in Oklahoma.

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