It’s time to prune your roses!

One of my favourite winter jobs is pruning the roses. It’s the frustrated hairdresser in me. I love a good chop.

Most people are a bit nervous about pruning roses. I have quite a laissez-faire attitude. I don’t get too caught up in the right way to do it.

What’s the worst that can happen?

You could lose a thumb. You could poke yourself in the eye.

The worst that can happen to you puts into perspective what you might do to the rose.

So you take a bit too much off? So what? Roses tend to like a bit of a short back and sides. It reinvigorates them.

Stevie and I were talking about pruning this morning, and both confessed to expecting at least one pruning accident. Not of the finger- or eye-kind, but of the ‘oops, didn’t mean to prune that branch’. It happens. It’s no biggy. Sigh and move on.

So here is my guide to rose-pruning, relaxed style.

1. Remove the four Ds: Dead, Dying, Damaged or Diseased stems.

2. Remove any crossing branches that might rub and cause a wound.

3. Prune back to an outward-facing bud if you can; if you can’t, don’t stress.

4. Prune back the weaker stems hard. This will encourage more growth.

5. Cut the stem at an angle so that when it rains, the water runs off the cut.

Anything else is personal preference. Over a couple of years you will get to know your roses, their growth habit and how you need to treat them.

I will try to illustrate these guidelines with some pictures!

  1. Remove the four Ds: Dead, Dying, Damaged or Diseased parts

The dead, dying, or diseased stems will be a different colour to the rest of the bush. On the photo below, you can see a yellowish stem. If you cut into this stem, it will be brittle. There is no green if you just peel back some of the bark. This stem will not produce any new growth, and so it should be pruned out. Take it right back to live growth. In this case, that is where the side shoot is. Remove any damaged stems, as any wounds will be an infection risk.

It is fine to take a stem right back to the ground. If you want to promote the growth of new stems, then take out a third of the oldest ones. You can see in the photo below the stumps of stems that have been pruned back in previous years.

2. Remove any crossing branches that might rub and cause a wound.

Sometimes growth gets a little bit hectic.

The David Austin English Rose ‘William Shakespeare 2000’ is wonderful in every way except his growth habit. He throws out canes that can stretch to 6 feet tall. By the end of the growing season there are lots of crossing stems, and sometimes they are twisted and the growth is, frankly, ugly.

My solution is to prune back hard, leaving only the main stems, at about 30cm. This makes for very easy pruning, but be sure you wear your gloves, glasses and long sleeves, as William Shakespeare bites!

3. Prune back to an outward-facing bud if you can; if you can’t, don’t stress.

Here, the outward-facing bud is obvious, because the rose has already started into growth:

If your rose is not so advanced in its growth, then look for the little red nubs. These show where the new shoot will grow.

Make your cut just above the nub of the shoot that you want to grow out. If you leave too much wood above the shoot, this will die back and just looks a bit dead and horrible.

As to the ‘outward-facing bud’, this is if you want to make your rose bush look bigger and more open. If you want it to be more compact and bushier at the centre, you might want to choose to prune to an inward-facing bud. Just imagine the bud extending out: that’s where the new growth will be.

Don’t stress about this! you can equally just trim all shoots back to make a nice shaped bush at the height you want: it is all good!

You can reduce a shrub rose’s height by a third to a half and it won’t be at all cross with you.

In the next few photos you can see how I have pruned various roses back to different heights.

First, here is the David Austin English Rose ‘Summer Song’. She tends to be very stiff and upright. I prune back hard to 30cm to an outward-facing bud to encourage a bushier habit.

Rosa ‘Summer Song’ pruned back hard to 30cm.

Here is another David Austin English Rose, ‘Thomas a Becket’. This has lovely lax growth with naturally arching stems. I can be equally relaxed about pruning. I don’t need to worry about the ‘outward-facing bud’ thing, because the stems will just naturally arch in a delightful manner in the direction they know best. So I just lightly prune back to my chest-height. This is an ideal rose for the back of a border, as it is tall and will provide a screen.

Here is one of my favourite David Austin English Roses, ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’. She is easy peasy too. I just prune her to my waist height. I could go lower, and next year I might. I’ll just see how she goes this year, and adjust accordingly. Like I said, don’t stress: roses are forgiving.

Rosa ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’ (red stems). The Gallica Rose ‘Tuscany Superb’ is the right, whcih I have left a little taller because it is further back.

Climbing roses don’t need much pruning other than dead-heading in the first two or three years. Once you have the main shoots established, you can prune the higher shoots as you would a shrub rose, but prune to an outward-facing shoot rather than one growing into the wall.

Climbing English Rose ‘Abraham Darby’

For climbing roses that are just getting going, you can start to train the leading stems around the support, getting as close to horizontal as you dare. Training shoots to the horizontal will encourage lots of flowering stems to develop. You can see these side-shoots-to-be as little buds along this horizontal stem.

Bourbon Climbing Rose ‘Madame Isaac Pereire’: I have threaded this bendy stem through the support to encourage it to start to clothe this rather ugly support!

4. Prune back the weaker stems hard. This will encourage more growth.

In the picture below, at the front you can see some stems that are more spindly than the others. These have been pruned back to half the height of the stronger stems. Pruning back hard encourages stronger growth.

5. Cut the stem at an angle so that when it rains, the water runs off the cut.

Here I hope that you can see that the cuts are at an angle. If the cut is horizontal, water will sit there, and this is uncomfortable for anyone. Also, it may be an infection risk.

So there it is, that is my guide to pruning roses. Does that help?

Feel free to ask questions. I am by no means an expert at pruning, having just learnt from reading a few books and giving it a go. But I have noticed there is a lot of anxiety around pruning, and my experience is that you don’t have to worry too much. Just put your glasses and gloves on, and give it a go!

The Mindful Gardener has a relaxed approach to gardening. If fat RHS Guides are not your thing, then this blog might be! Join me for fun-filled, joyful gardening.

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38 Comments Add yours

  1. Christina says:

    Excellent, I’ve passed it onto a friend who is new to pruning.

    1. Oh, that’s brilliant. Thanks Christina.

  2. Penny Post says:

    Great post, very informative. We probably share a similar attitude to pruning as I just prune out the stems I don’t like. I’ve even been known to prune back my climbers extra hard in the summer after their first flowering if i don;t like the way they have grown and they then reward me with new growth and a good display later in the year.

    1. That’s a good strategy too!

  3. Such a wonderful post! They will be rewarding you with beautiful blooms 💚

  4. Maggie Frost says:

    Thanks for being so relaxed about it all, I can be somewhat obsessed about pruning. Are all of your roses on their own roots (as opposed to grafted)? The multiple shoots/canes, coming straight out of the ground is amazing. What zone are you and how deep do you plant them? Sorry for all the questions, and big thanks too!

    1. They are all grafted, with the graft planted just below the surface. I keep meaning to take cuttings and try a few on their own roots.

    2. We get temperatures down to -5 in winter, rarely lower.

  5. I have needed this for years. Way to go Ali. I am a shrub butcher. Maybe I will get rose pruning right this year. THANKS

    1. I’m so please it’s useful! ❤️

  6. bcparkison says:

    I did the other day and I must say it felt good. I don’t really know what I’m doing but since my roses were rejects from a nursery my husband worked for I feel lucky they have been as pretty as they have. My maine problem is a climbing on that is almost as tall as the end of the house and not a very pretty bush. Beautiful blooms but very sparce. I may just cut it down.

    1. Yes, I plant short climbers because I am terrible up a ladder! That sounds like you have had brilliant value from those roses.

      1. bcparkison says:

        Not all of them. Every one of the ‘knockouts’ have been knocked out.

  7. Thanks, Ali! This is a great primer on pruning roses, and I especially appreciate your detailed instructions and the photos. I know just about all there is to pruning and enjoy this project every year. In fact, I’ve found that these techniques work with almost everything. Now, I will send your post via email to my daughter, although she’s still buried under ice-incrusted snow. ~ Jo

    1. Ah, thank you Jo, I am honoured! Hope your daughter keeps warm and cosy til the thaw comes.

  8. Well I’ve been reluctant to prune, but I’m going to give a go now! Thanks for all the info, this post is a keeper!

    1. That’s great to hear. Be bold! Wear gloves!

      1. hahaha ~ of course, gloves. Even so, those thorns will find their way to my skin.

  9. JT Twissel says:

    Timely post as I have just started pruning my roses and had no idea what I was doing except for the cross branches. Thx

    1. Oh good! Glad to know that this is of use.

  10. says:

    Thanks Ali, I was just wondering how to prune the David Austin Carolyn Knight rose that I bought last year. I will follow your tips and let you know how she turns out. Freya

    1. I expect it will only need a really light prune this year, Freya. X

  11. ewarost says:

    Wonderful post! Thanks.

  12. Bridget says:

    I have a decades-old antique rose that is no longer flourishing. Over the years, each tim I prune a stem, the entire stem dies to the root. I am down to about 4 shoots off a main stem and am terrified of losing it. Should I dig up the rose and replant? It may be too low in our lawn, collecting too much water is my suspicion, but I am so afraid of losing her. I feed, use excellent soil, andcare for as best I can.

    1. I would try to take a few cuttings in the spring. Roses tend to live for 20-30 years. The old roses are tougher and may live longer, but it sounds like yours might be getting tired. It would be lovely to have offspring which will keep going for another generation!

  13. Mary Lou says:

    Thank you for this information. I’ve been bitten by the David Austin “bug” and am new to pruning. I have two DA climbers and five bush rose’s. So looking forward to next spring/summer to enjoy their beauty.

    1. It’s a wonderful bug to have, Mary Lou! I hope you find other posts helpful too (not trying to feed your addiction AT ALL!)

  14. Gillian says:

    It’s easy to feel intimidated by pruning special plants isn’t it? Your blog post is very informative and interesting Ali. We’ve taken a chain saw to some of our mature roses this winter as they were making their way into our roof! Not worried one bit! Years ago my mother-in-law dug up and gave me her roses that had also just been cut down to make way for a house extension. I replanted them immediately and they soon became the best roses we’ve ever had.

    1. What wonderful tough little cookies they are! Your story echoes a few replies I’ve had on Facebook of roses that were accidentally hedge-trimmed by apprentice gardeners and went on to put on the best show of flowers as a result!

  15. Pauline says:

    Thank you Ali. I tend to just cut away. However, we moved into this house a years ago. There is a very tall beautiful yellow rose. I kept deadheading and it was fine. The problem is that at the height I woukd like to prune to it has very thick stems and looks like nothing below. How low dare I prune it to? Am in south England, do I wait for warmer weather for those I hadn’t pruned earlier! Thank you

    1. You can go as low as you dare, Pauline. You can actually remove all top-growth, but I would probably recommend 30cm. I have taken a pruning saw to a rose like this before now. I would just wait for a nice day for your enjoyment, more than the rose’s!

  16. nancy marie allen says:

    I love your relaxed approach to pruning roses which can be quite intimidating to new gardeners; it was to me! The most important thing to remember is that roses are very forgiving of our sometimes less than professional hairstyles and will even reward us with more vigorous growth!

    1. Absolutely. We’ve all survived bad haircuts! 😂

  17. Clare Pooley says:

    Great post, Ali! I love pruning but here I leave the hard pruning just a few more weeks as I am afraid of late frost on new shoots. I have been caught out a few times!

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