Braving the Thorns Part 2: Pruning Your Dormant Rose

Rose pruning is such a satisfying task – you go from a tangled icky mass with thorns everywhere to a lovely clean set of sturdy stems – yet too many people are intimidated by their roses.

There’s no need to be shy! The worst thing you can do is not tackle them at all, since without pruning, the stems become too spindly to hold up roses, and the plant harbors more disease than one that is cleaned up once a year.

This quick BBC slideshow gives the basics of pruning roses.

Ready to see those concepts at work?

Check out this charming Rosarian, Muriel Humenick, in action! I agree, Muriel – down with the anvil pruners!

Climbing roses are even simpler than the Hybrid Tea roses in the video:

First take out any dead wood (it’s obvious because it is a crusty dark brown, very different from the live stems with a hint of green to them).

Then prune back any flowering or side shoots by two-thirds. The side shoots are the ones which have likely grown 2-3’ this year and are sticking out from the main body of the plant in every which way.

Simple, no?

But what if you have a weird rose?

No worries! I promise – they’re easy, too.

Groundcover roses like the Flower Carpet line just need a quick shape-up with the hedging shears once a year. I bring them back to about 2’ around, then prune out a few of the very spindliest stems and take out anything dark brown and dead.

Don’t get caught up going for perfection here; you won’t get it. They naturally grow tangled and in every direction, and that’s OK – they are tough as nails and do great with minimal fussing.

Mini roses are pruned just like the usual Hybrid Tea roses, only more proportionate to their size. I leave a few more stems on and don’t worry about the branches being too skinny since the roses they’re supporting don’t weigh much.

Large shrub roses like ‘Sally Holmes’ (which can top 6’) get pruned much like the common Hybrid Teas.

I just leave a larger framework – 3-4’ tall – and leave more stems throughout the bush since it’s a much wider-growing plant than your average rosebush.

The same basics still apply – at the end, you should have a number of stems cut to an outward-facing bud or eye, nothing too spindly to support those big rose clusters, and each branch should be spaced out evenly so that there is good airflow and no stems rubbing or crossing each other awkwardly.

Still need some encouragement?

Dr Leda Horticulture is the hands-down funniest garden writer ever, and she tackles our fear of rose pruning head-on in this column from 2004: (Edit April 2nd – Dr Leda’s article was taken down recently, but I’m talking with Regan Nursery to see if I can reprint some of her hilarious columns here at NCG, so stay tuned!)

Never Prune Roses in the Nude

Check her out!

14 responses to “Braving the Thorns Part 2: Pruning Your Dormant Rose”

  1. Hi Genevieve, I love Muriel too! We prune roses here in TN on Valentine’s Day by tradition, but any nice day from now on will do. This garden job is one of my very favorites, despite the thorns, making the roses neater and happier too. I like to chop up the prunings a little and add them to the brush piles around the edge of our property, not wanting to add the thorns to the compost. The birds love to hide out there with the extra protection from the thorns.

    Frances’s last blog post..Inauguration Day-Starting Anew

  2. Frances, what a great idea to put the thorns in the brush piles to give the birds that extra measure of protection!

    I outlaw thorns in my compost too, plus there are always diseases lurking on roses that I don’t want spread around…

  3. I don’t grow roses myself, but when I had clients, i trimmed them down to about 12 inches every spring.

    Seriously, what are anvil pruners supposed to be good for?

    I don’t know who Muriel is, but if she’s the nice older lady in the video, she rules!

    Monica’s last blog post..Hope in the Unknown

  4. I’ll have to see if the roses I “pruned” a couple months ago, survive, heh. They were growing up onto the deck and everything when I first moved in, so I hacked them back so they wouldn’t be in the way. I definitely should have watched some YouTube videos first though. Ah well. If they die, I’ll plant something I can eat in the spot (though I have heard rose hips can be tasty).

    Lindsay’s last blog post..How I Made $220.64 from One Short Blog Post

  5. That’s what I do, too, Monica. Much higher and they get leggy and spindly; much lower and they seem to run out of juice.

    I bet your roses are fine, Lindsay! Almost any rose can handle being hacked at once, even at the wrong time of the year. We often have to whack roses and move them in the heat of the summer when doing new landscape installations, and they often even bloom later that year.

  6. In Michigan, winters are cold. So I should add people who trim back roses in fall, instead of spring, tend to leave them at 18 inches or so; this is because rose canes get frost damage from the tip down to the rootball, so the more you leave over winter, the higher the chances that you can cut off damage in spring. Some people also mulch their roses with leaves over winter. (As I’ve said, I don’t grow them!)

    I also found out, through a master gardener association presentation Tuesday night, the answer to my own question of “what are anvil pruners supposed to be good for?” Dead wood! But the bypass pruners also work for deadwood, so why have anvils at all? (Of course, I’m not one to like a bunch of accessories, but I know I’m int he minority there!)

    Monica’s last blog post..Hope in the Unknown

    • You are so right. I have a client with a ginormous pair of anvil loppers and they are ACE on deadwood. I guess I don’t get to trash anvil pruners across the board!

      Thanks for your cold climate take on things! It’s awesome to feel my gardening life wouldn’t end if I moved away from the coast.

  7. Another great posting here Genevieve. Being a northern gardener I leave the few roses I have in my gardens for pruning in early spring. I mound the soil at the base to help with winter protection too and pull it away in spring. This seems to work.

    Thanks for great pruning info. You make those of us who are uncertain of pruning methods empowered to give it a go.

    Ann’s last blog post..Cyrtanthus mackenii (Ifafa Lily)

    • Thank you so much for your kind words and awesome advice, Ann! I’ve been experimenting with using a super heavy pile of chips on dormant tender perennials to overwinter them. Your rose advice is giving me more confidence that it will work!

  8. Great post, though I don’t have roses.. But I’m so enchanted by the Trillium in the top right corner of the blog. Any advice on how to grow those? I’ve have very mixed success…

    Renate’s last blog post..And more birds…

    • I think they basically need that forest floor environment with a lot of mulch and composty business (perhaps a gentle groundcover around to catch the dew), a few years to get established (never try to move them once they’re in, they are touchy!), speckled bright shade, and not much water beyond the dew in the summer (so no automatic irrigation). I hope that helps! I’ve grown them with great success and ease in environments close to their natural home (they can be quite tough!), but had little success with them in normal home garden situations where they get a couple of hours of direct sun and have to deal with normal garden soil and situations.

      They are absolutely lovely. I’m planning on having a foresty spot in my garden for such things, with a rotting log perhaps and a small pond and lots of cute woodland perennials. Someday… Right now I have a garden with chickens, so charming woodland perennials are kind of out.

  9. I have Knock Out roses and in my part of NC zone 7, they never stop growing. I usually prune them at the end of September. It’s been bitter cold lately and the new shoots didn’t care one bit. Still green as a gourd.

    I have three Oso Easy roses by Proven Winners and so far, they are evergreen too. I wasn’t expecting that. I am going to transplant them to a container soon. They are growing like weeds and taking over the beds.

    I enjoyed this post on pruning. I suppose if I had a hybrid or some other fancy rose it would matter what I trim them with. But those hardy cultivars I have can be cut with a case knife and keep going.

    Anna/Flowergardengirl’s last blog post..How Would You Landscape A Cultural Center?

  10. HI Genevieve, I have Sally Holmes bushes that are at least 8-9 ft tall. The main stems are about 2 inches in diameter. They are tall but not bushy. I’d like to make them bushier and get more blooms. Should I trim them big body down to 3-4 ft tall (that’s more than 2/3 rule)? Thank you and I love your post.