Pruning Roses: Tips for All Classes of Roses

Pruning wild roses Pruning

If you prune your roses every spring, at the time of forsythia flowering, the noble flowering shrubs will remain vital, compact and eager to bloom. In this guide we explain the pruning rules for all important rose classes.

Whether bedding roses, climbing roses or shrub roses: all roses should be pruned professionally in spring in order to enjoy many rose blossoms in summer and to keep the plants healthy. What exactly needs to be done depends on the respective rose class: bedding roses are pruned differently from the strong-growing shrub roses, and repeat-flowering varieties are pruned differently from single-flowering rose varieties.

Pruning roses

Pruning roses: The most important things at a glance

  • The optimal time for spring pruning of roses is when the forsythia are in flower. First remove all dead, diseased and damaged shoots.
  • The rose pruning should be about five millimetres above a bud, rising at a slight angle.
  • All repeat-flowering noble and bedding roses may be pruned down to 15 to 20 centimetres.
  • Shrub roses are pruned less than bedding roses. Modern varieties are usually so willing to flower and grow that they can do without spring pruning. Single-flowering shrub roses should not be pruned until summer.
  • Summer pruning is also recommended for single-flowering climbing roses. Frequently flowering climbing roses flower on this year’s wood as well as on annual and perennial wood and are cut back by a maximum of one third of their total height.

When should you prune your roses?

From mid-March it is time to prune the roses in the garden. It is not possible to set an exact date, as the time can vary by up to 14 days depending on the region. While in the Alps it is often still deepest winter in March, the roses are already budding in the mild coastal climate. At high altitudes there may still be the threat of bare frost, while in mild wine-growing regions or temperate river valleys it is already high time to prune the shoots. It is best to follow nature’s calendar: as soon as the forsythia blossom, you can prune your roses without hesitation. Even if your roses have already developed short new shoots with green leaves, you can still cut them back without any problems.

Why do you prune roses?

Over the years, roses lose their bloom and vitality – they become senile, as the experts say. Spring pruning then acts like a rejuvenating cure. By pruning the roses, the eyes are stimulated to sprout vigorously. The more the rose is pruned, the more vigorous its new growth. Pruning also thins out the crowns. The plants get more light and the leaves dry off more quickly after rainfall. A “tidy” cane makes initial maintenance measures easier, because it is easier to reach for fertilising and weeding. In addition, pruning reduces susceptibility to fungal diseases such as black leaf spot. But beware: it depends above all on the class of rose how radically and regularly the canes are pruned down. Nevertheless, roses are extremely tolerant of pruning – so you can’t do much wrong! Experienced rose gardeners notice time and again that their roses bloom particularly luxuriantly after hard winters – even though many shoots were frost-bitten and the rose bushes therefore had to be pruned down to the old wood in some cases.

The right way to prune roses

The right tools for pruning roses

A good pair of sharp secateurs is the most important tool. Don’t skimp on quality here: a good quality model costs around 50 euros. To be able to work effectively, the scissors must sit well in the hand. There are also ladies’ models and rose shears for left-handers. Make sure that the blade is always well sharpened. If you bruise or tear the shoots instead of cutting them, you create larger entry points for diseases. There are basically two different pruning systems for pruning shears – so-called anvil shears and bypass shears. Bypass models are the better choice for pruning roses, as they do not crush the shoots over such a large area when pruning. After pruning, you should clean the blades. For coated blades, this is best done with a cleaning spray for glass surfaces and a cloth. For stronger shoots, for example on shrubs or climbing roses, you need stronger equipment. This is where pruning shears come in: the leverage of the long handles makes it easy to cut even thick branches.

The right way to prune roses

Always position the pruning shears so that the cut is about five millimetres above a bud or a new shoot, sloping slightly towards the shoot or bud – this allows rainwater to drain off easily. The wound area should nevertheless be as small as possible. So it is better to cut a little too straight than too diagonally. The cut should also be made so that the top bud faces outwards.

Tools for pruning roses

General pruning rules for roses

Before you get started, you should definitely know a few pruning and growth rules: Always remove all dead, frostbitten and damaged shoots down to the healthy wood before you start the actual pruning. By removing dead, injured and diseased shoots including foliage, you remove the breeding ground for plant diseases. After winter you can see which areas have been damaged by frost. Cut off all brown shoots. Remaining leaves may show traces of fungal diseases. These can cause new infection and should therefore be carefully removed from the rose bed.

As a general rule, strong shoots should not be pruned too vigorously in order to force the rose to distribute its vigour over many buds. The rose will then produce numerous, but clearly shorter and weaker new shoots. Weak shoots should be pruned heavily so that the rose can gather its strength in a few buds. This will result in fewer, but longer and stronger shoots. If pruning is intended to stimulate the formation of rose flowers, it is important to know that, depending on the class of rose, the strongest flower formation takes place on one or two-year-old wood, i.e. on shoots that have grown during the last year or the year before last. Prune your rose so that it produces as many strong second- and third-order branches as possible (see drawing for ranking of side shoots).

Pruning according to rose classes

It is important to know to which rose class and growth form a rose belongs, as there are special pruning rules for the different rose groups.

rose pruning

Pruning bedding roses

Ideally, a bedding rose should produce many flower shoots with numerous flowers. However, it must not become too long-shoots, otherwise the shrub will fall apart and lose its bushy character.

Cut back weakly growing bedding rose varieties so that only three to five healthy previous year’s shoots with three eyes each remain. Cut back strong-growing bedding roses to three to five shoots with five buds each.

The right pruning for roses

When pruning roses, the aim is to encourage the formation of long, straight flower stems; too many branches are not desirable. To do this, cut back all stronger shoots of the noble rose to five eyes and all weaker shoots to three eyes. In the case of a weak-growing variety, leave three to four healthy strong shoots, all others are removed at the base. For a strong-growing variety, leave five to six shoots.

Tip: For both bedding roses and older noble roses, always cut back a perennial shoot to the base at ground level. In this way, rejuvenation is stimulated by new shoots from the base. The fewer growth buds a perennial or bedding rose has after pruning, the more vigour it can put into each one. Therefore, remove all shoots and branches that are thinner than a pencil – except for dwarf roses or ground cover roses, which have naturally thin shoots.

Pruning the more frequent-flowering shrub roses

The group of repeat-flowering shrub roses includes both the modern and some repeat-flowering varieties of the so-called historical roses. The mostly overhanging shrub roses grow to a height of 120 to 300 centimetres, depending on the variety. Shrub roses must first form a strong framework of first and second order shoots, which then bear the annual shoots with the flowers. Therefore, in modern shrub roses, the first-order long shoots – these are the shoots that formed the previous year – are only reduced by a third of their growth height.

Cut back all remaining second and third order branches to three to five eyes. Most of the flower-bearing shoots will then form on them. Then select the best three to five main shoots that will form the rose crown. Remove weak and over-aged shoots at the base. Historic shrub roses, on the other hand, often have much thinner shoots; leave more shoots here so that the older shoots can support the younger ones.

Pruning tips

Pruning wild roses and single-flowering shrub roses

Single-flowering shrub roses are a special case when it comes to pruning. Most historical rose varieties and almost all wild roses belong to this group. Since they bloom on the perennial branches, you should refrain from heavy spring pruning. Remove only the dead shoots in spring and, if necessary, postpone smaller pruning measures on the early-flowering species and varieties until the summer months after flowering.

From the fifth year of growth, however, always cut out the oldest, thickest shoot at ground level in spring. Old wood can be recognised by the fact that the bark has changed colour from green to a yellowish brown and has developed a light bark. If you cut off two strong, old branches just above the ground each year, the shrub can form new basic shoots. This ongoing rejuvenation can also take place well before the forsythia flowers – around mid-February.

Pruning small shrub roses and ground cover roses

Small shrub roses, which also include ground cover roses, are usually planted in the garden and also in public gardens in larger groups or for greening areas. They are easy to care for and pruning is kept to a minimum.

You should thin out the plants every three to four years before budding in spring by cutting out individual over-aged shoots. To keep them growing densely, you should also cut back all shoots from the previous year by a third to a half each spring. The quickest way to do this is with hedge shears, as precise pruning “by eye” is not necessary with these low-maintenance plants.

Correctly prune climbing roses that flower more often

When pruning repeat-flowering climbing roses, remove all shoots that cannot be guided – that is, all shoots that grow in the wrong direction. Then cut back all second or higher order branching along the main shoots to three to five eyes (pin pruning). If a strong long shoot developed from the base last summer, you can remove an older shoot at the base. A balanced ratio of young wood (annuals and biennials) and old wood (perennials) is ideal. New shoots from the previous year will produce a particularly large number of flowers if you attach them to the trellis at as flat an angle as possible, i.e. diagonally to almost horizontally.

Pruning small shrub roses

Pruning once-blooming climbing roses

First of all, cut out all damaged and dead parts as close to the base as possible. In addition, you should remove a first-order shoot from the third year of growth, but only if there are enough first-order shoots.

Remove weak shoots from the climbing roses. On the two- to three-year-old shoots, cut back the branches that already bore flowers last year or that formed in midsummer to three eyes. Caution: With climber roses you must never remove the long shoots completely, otherwise the original growth habit may break through.

Pruning wild roses

Pruning tips for trunk roses

Roses grafted onto tall stems, so-called stem roses, are in principle treated like bedding roses. As a guide, shorten the crown to a third of its natural height. This is to allow for an open, light-permeable crown structure. Do not cut all the shoots to one height or spherical. This would look unnatural later on. As with bedding roses that flower more often, do not leave too many shoots. Otherwise the rose will mat easily and produce only short new shoots with weak flowers. The situation is different with so-called cascade roses: for this purpose, climbing roses are usually grafted onto the stems. These plants are only thinned out slightly if necessary by cutting out old shoots and shortening very long shoots. If the grafted climbing roses are single-flowering varieties, the shoots are only cut back after flowering.

Watch out for wild shoots when pruning roses

With noble, bedding and dwarf roses you can easily recognise a wild shoot by the fact that it has more than five leaflets. This is more difficult with other rose groups. The normal shoots of historic roses can only be distinguished from wild shoots by trained eyes. Rambler roses also sprout confusingly similar, long, green, flowerless shoots in the first year.

Jonathan Harvey
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