Roses are among the easiest flowering shrubs to grow. No prima donnas, they can cling to life long after lesser plants give up. Given care, they respond like gangbusters. "Care" means water, fertilizer, pest control, and pruning. Pruning is the focus here, and for most gardeners March -- just before spring growth resumes -- is the most important time to prune. Timing would be earlier in the South, low deserts, and coastal West, and later in the North.
Pruning has four main goals: remove dead twigs and branches; remove weak, damaged, and useless branches; open the plant to improve air circulation; and create an attractive shape.
Tools You'll Need
Nearly all roses are well equipped with sharp thorns, and some are very thorny. First of all, you need a pair of heavy leather gloves, preferably long enough to protect your forearms.
The next essential is hand shears. We prefer the scissors type over the anvil type for their clean, sharp cuts, but both kinds have their fans. Use shears to cut twigs, side branches, and main branches up to about 1/4 inch in diameter.
If you have older plants with many thick stems at the base, you'll also need a small pruning saw or loppers, or both.
Pruning Cuts: Some Basic Rules
Cut at an angle. Cut about 1/4 inch above an outward-facing bud at a 45-degree angle. Dab pruning seal (white glue will work) on the pruning cuts to seal them, especially if you live where rose borers are a problem.
Cutting above an outward-facing bud forces growth up and away from the center of the plant, improving air circulation, which reduces pest problems. Wait until early spring when buds swell and are easy to spot.
Cut back to live tissue. After you cut, examine the pithy tissue in the center. Is it white and healthy clear through? If not, cut back farther.
Remove dead branches completely. Brown and shriveled canes stand out like sore thumbs. Cut them to the base, using a saw if necessary.
Never give a sucker an even break. Suckers are vigorous canes growing from the rootstock below the graft union on grafted roses. Cut these off to the main stem, even if you have to dig away some soil to get to them.
Best Cuts for Different Roses
The preceding guidelines would allow you to do a pretty good job of pruning any rose. But knowing the idiosyncrasies of the different kinds of roses also helps.
Hybrid teas and grandifloras. Keep the thickest green canes evenly spaced around the bush. Prune out all canes with diameters less than a pencil width and old, brown canes that tend to be less productive. A new hybrid tea should have three to five canes left. Grandifloras such as 'Queen Elizabeth' and older hybrid teas can support six to eight canes.
Later in the season you'll be pruning again when you're make bouquets for indoors. Cut so that you've a long enough stem for a vase but don't remove too many leaves. Try to leave at least two 5-leaflet leaves on the remaining stem. Therefore the ideal place to cut is just above an outward growing bud and/or the uppermost 5-leaflet leaf.
Floribundas and polyanthas. Leave six to eight main canes, and remove most of the twiggy growth in the center of the bush. Compared to hybrid teas and grandifloras, leave more minor branches, especially toward the top of the plant. Prune the remaining canes to give the plant a rounded shape.
Climbing roses. Don't prune any climber, except to remove dead or broken branches, for two or three years. That's enough time for the plant to develop strong branches that can produce flowers for many years. On established plants, prune dead or damaged branches to the base.
Train main branches to grow as horizontally as possible. How you do this varies with your situation. Imagine the arching canes of a climbing rose along a split-rail fence; canes arching in this fashion produce many more flowers than canes growing straight up.
The two most common types of climbing roses are the naturally vigorous mutations (sports) of hybrid teas, grandifloras, and floribundas, and those simply called "large-flowered climbers." Both types produce flowers on long-lived side branches (laterals) off the main canes. Flowers develop on the side branches. In late winter or early spring, shorten those laterals to about 6 inches.
Shrub roses. Modern shrub roses require minimal maintenance. Vigorous plants can be pruned more, while slow-growing plants should be pruned less. Some, like 'Carefree Beauty' and some of the Meidiland series, require only light annual pruning.
Miniatures. Some need no regular pruning at all. If you have a few plants indoors, use narrow-bladed pruning shears (or scissors) to prune and shape. For miniatures used as landscape plants, use hedge shears to maintain size.
Old-fashioned heirlooms. How and when to prune depends somewhat on the type. Alba: Prune after spring flowering. Bourbon and Portland: Just before spring growth, shorten main canes by a third and side shoots to three buds. Centifolia and moss: After blooms fade in spring, shorten main canes and side shoots. China: In winter, remove twiggy growth and shorten main canes by a third. Damask: After spring flowering, remove twiggy growth and cut back laterals to three buds. Gallica: Just before spring growth and after spring flowering, remove twiggy growth. Hybrid perpetual: After spring blooms fade, cut back main shoots by a third and shorten side shoots. Tea: Just before spring growth, remove twiggy growth and shorten main canes by a third.
Michael MacCaskey is a former editorial director for National Gardening.
Photography by National Gardening Association