Thoughts on Rose Pruning

The weather was good this past weekend, so I got outside and pruned the roses in our garden. Pruning roses used to make me nervous, but now I relax by reminding myself that roses are basically brambles. At least mine are – two shrub roses (‘Sally Holmes’ and ‘Cassie’) and two climbers (‘Darlow’s Enigma’ and the wild Rosa setigera or Prairie Rose).

2014-07-06 12.16.47 rose sally holmes
‘Sally Holmes’

Anyway, the point is that it’s hard to commit a fatal error when pruning roses. Like brambles, you can hack away at them pretty ferociously and they will generally bounce back with renewed vigor.

Not that I am recommending that you lash out blindly at your roses with sharp instruments. First of all, that wouldn’t be nice. Second, just because it’s hard to commit a fatal error doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some thought into what you are doing.

‘Cassie’ unpruned.

Above is a picture I took of ‘Cassie’ before I pruned her. Kind of a tangled mess, right? Pruning improves air circulation in the center of the plant, which reduces the chances for disease. It also lets in more light and generally improves blooming.

These germs would like to jump from your pruners to your roses.

Before starting, I like to sanitize my pruners, either with disinfectant wipes or a spritz from a spray bottle. It’s a good idea to resanitize whatever cutting tool you are using every time you move on to a new rose, otherwise you may be spreading disease.

And just in case you, like me, need to be reminded of the obvious: wear gloves! Gardening should be a peaceful pursuit that does not involve bloodshed. I generally garden without gloves, which is fine except when you are dealing skin-piercing plants. Unless you are a gardening masochist, in which case I make no judgements whatsoever.

‘Darlow’s Enigma’ thorns. Photo from

Though not all roses are the same in that regard – most of mine are not too bad except for ‘Darlow’s Enigma’. DE boasts some truly wicked thorns, curved and sharp as needles, that have been known to draw blood even through strong gloves.

So, now you’re ready to prune. I was taught to remove everything that was 1) dead, damaged or diseased; 2) potentially rubbing against another stem; or 3) thinner than a pencil.

bud eye
Photo from

The place to cut on the stem is just above an outward facing bud – outward because you don’t want growth in the center of the plant to be too dense. Sometimes the bud is obvious. Other times you need to look for the latent bud, which is not hard to find if you look closely.


Here’s ‘Cassie’ after I was done pruning. I probably could have been a little more aggressive in removing stems but this is good enough.


I actually like pruning, including pruning roses. Something very satisfying about clearing out a tangled mess of stems. Do you enjoy pruning roses?

55 Comments on “Thoughts on Rose Pruning”

  1. Thank you, you’ve reminded me that I need to start doing mine and I have rather a lot to do, including all the climbers on the pergola! There is something quite therapeutic about pruning roses and they always look so much better afterwards.

  2. I’ve just finished pruning an Iceberg rose that we have had for years, and it is very forgiving…and flowers for quite a bit of the year. I’ve learnt to be harsh in cutting… and I agree with Pauline, something therapeutic about it..

  3. l like pruning anything! I’ve found roses to be pretty resilient regarding how effectively they’re pruned. Even if you butcher them, they usually end up looking mostly ok. I’ve already pruned one rose and have a few more on the list. It’s one of those ‘spring is almost here’ chores that I look forward to. Your Cassie looks great!

  4. I don’t mind pruning anything. I just am always unsure if I am doing it right. I read all about the how tos, the not dos and I had pruning 101 in the Master Gardeners class but still I am unsure. I don’t have all that many roses, only 4. They are not what I wan them to be. I don’t know why I keep them except for the fact that they do bloom. Something to ponder.

  5. I’m with Casa Mariposa — I love pruning anything. It’s like cleaning out a closet. You may not want to start but the sense of satisfaction after you’ve finished makes the job a pleasure. Shaping a plant makes me feel like I’m involved in its future. A bit like raising a child?

  6. I love pruning but not roses. there is always bloodshed!
    I think when you say you might have pruned a little harder I agree. perhaps a couple of those old brown shoots at the base….?

  7. I do not know enough about pruning in general. I always have to look up each plant, and often I find I’m thinking of it at the wrong season for the plant 🙂 I have had no luck with roses out here, either. When I first started gardening here, the Japanese beetles decimated any roses before they had a chance to bloom, so I sort of gave up. However, they haven’t been as bad the last few years, so maybe I should invest in a shrub rose.

    • Well, it is worth knowing when NOT to prune. As far as I know, you can prune most things in late fall or winter EXCEPT for lilacs and forsythia – those should be pruned right after they bloom. Otherwise, I don’t worry any more about pruning things “the right way”, I just start hacking.

  8. A timely reminder. Mine will be done as soon as the weather allows this month. Those thorns look lethal. Like you Jason I garden without gloves but am a bit more careful when it comes to the roses. I’ve lost count how many thorn tips I’ve had to dig out of my fingers.

  9. I’m about to plant my first roses this summer, so I’m happy to have this primer on pruning them. Spring seems to be coming early here, so I think it’s time to get out and prune clematis and spirea next week.

  10. I think to do a good job of it you have to know your personality. I have realized over the years that I tend not to prune enough. So nowadays I prune just a bit more than I feel is necessary whhich is usually just right!

  11. Hello Jason, the roses we have don’t require heavy pruning, just a few snips here and there to tidy up and it’s done. I am so used to working around rose thorns now that when I feel a prick from a thorn, I overcome the usual instinct to pull away (thereby dragging the thorn across the skin in a long scratch) but freeze, look to see what’s happening and then carefully move my hand off the thorn without it being scratched.

  12. I’m thinking of adding Rosa setigera to the garden. Is it possible to prune this so it takes on the form of a tall (say 8-10 ft tall) shrub? I’ve read one review where a gardener said it arched over at about 3 feet tall unless supported?

    Very nice blog post, by the way!

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