A browser search for “rose pruning” will present you with dozens of websites offering the same set of standard rules. The instructions usually will sound something like this:
Pruning is a necessary part of rose gardening. Pruned roses will be healthier, will produce more blooms, and will be more resistant to pests and disease. Begin by removing all dead wood, all growth in the center of the rose bush, and all canes and branches smaller than a pencil in diameter. Reduce the size of the bush by one-third to one-half, making 45-degree cuts about a quarter of an inch above an outward-facing node.
Let’s examine these rules and point out the fallacies, starting with the biggest myth of all.
Is pruning essential to the health of a rose?
No, it is not. Roses do not need to be pruned. Pruned roses will not be healthier, produce more blooms, or be more resistant to pests and disease. In an experiment conducted over a period of several years in England, three different pruning methods were used on rose bushes planted in three different plots. The bushes in the first plot were not pruned at all, the bushes in the second plot were pruned with electric hedge trimmers, and the bushes in the third plot were pruned according to the standard set of rules.
The first method (no pruning at all) produced the healthiest roses with the most abundant blooms. The results were not as impressive in the second and third plots. Furthermore, there was virtually no difference between the results in the second and third plots. Scrupulous adherence to the hard and fast rules of rose pruning produced the same results as merely running an electric clipper over the bushes.
At this point, many of you can celebrate the news that pruning is not essential to the health of a rose and you can plan to devote your time and energy to something more enjoyable or more useful. Some of you, however, may choose to prune your roses even after hearing this good news.
Although roses do not require pruning, gardeners may require it. Gardeners with limited space may need to prune their roses to keep them within reasonable bounds, and growers planning to sell cut roses or to exhibit roses may need to prune their roses in a way calculated to produce blooms with the required stem length, but everyone else can safely skip the task.
I don’t sell or exhibit roses, but I do have a shortage of space. I’m growing about 2,000 rose bushes on half an acre of land, so pruning is essential in my garden. If I were to leave all of my roses to their own devices, I soon would be trapped inside by a mass of impenetrable brambles. I do have a few roses that I never prune, and I think it’s ludicrous to believe that pruning could produce more blooms than these roses already have:
The rest of my roses do have to be pruned, so I have the choice of using electric hedge clippers or following the conventional rules of pruning. I don’t like the first of these options and I don’t recommend it. Most of the cuts made by electric hedge clippers will be too far above a growing node. That extra growth above the node will die back and you’ll have a garden full of black stubs jutting out in all directions. I arm myself with bypass loppers and pruning shears (anvil-head cutting tools will damage the plant, so they should never be used on roses) and I prune according to the rules, removing at least the top third of each cane and making my cuts a quarter of an inch above a growing node. Most of my roses are hybrid teas, and I prefer long-stemmed roses on those bushes, so I remove the top two-thirds of their canes.
This is a time-consuming and labor-intensive job in comparison with the hedge-trimmer and no-pruning methods, but the process I once regarded as such a daunting task has become much easier now that I can ignore most of the standard rules, several of which are obsolete, misleading, or downright harmful. Let’s take a closer look at the steps recommended in the conventional set of rules summarized above.
Should you begin by removing dead wood?
This is not part of the pruning process and never should have been included in any set of pruning instructions. Dead or diseased wood can and should be removed as soon as you see it, at any time of the year, without waiting for the pruning season. It makes no sense at all to leave it on the bush until spring.
Should you remove all growth in the center of the bush?
The old rules told us that pruning everything out of the center of the rose bush would improve air circulation and thereby deter black spot and some other rose diseases. This sounds logical, but if we add our knowledge that pruning stimulates growth, the logic falls apart. The center of the rose bush is not a place where we want to stimulate growth, so this rule should not be followed.
Should you remove all branches smaller than a pencil in diameter?
This was a fine rule when we were buying big grafted roses that had been grown in the fields for two or three years before they were offered for sale. These days, however, own-root roses seem to be more plentiful. Roses growing on their own roots are offered for sale as early as a few months after the cuttings have been rooted, and it’s likely that all of the branches will be smaller than a pencil in diameter for at least the first three years these roses are in your garden. In fact, in the absence of a sturdy rootstock promoting vigorous growth, some roses that are not grafted may never have any canes larger than a pencil in diameter.
Should you make 45-degree cuts?
The old rules told us to make diagonal 45-degree pruning cuts rather than straight ones to protect the pruning “wounds” from rainfall. This also has proved to be bad advice. Rainfall is usually accompanied by wind and is almost never perfectly vertical, so a diagonal cut provides little or no protection. Furthermore, diagonal cuts leave a larger wound than straight cuts, providing a larger exposed surface for potential damage from pests and disease.
Should you cut above an outward-facing growth node?
The old rules told us to make pruning cuts a quarter-inch above an outward-facing growth node so that the new growth would grow away from the center. This is a wonderful rule, but it can be nothing more than an example of wishful thinking in some cases. You can make your pruning cuts above outward-facing growth nodes and hope for the best. The new branches could grow away from the center, but they could also grow straight upward or even toward the center if there’s more sunlight in that direction. Roses love sunlight, and the new growth will follow the sun.
When should you prune your roses?
Many websites offer this advice: Prune your roses when the buds begin to swell. This could be misleading to the novice gardener, who might wait until the flower buds start to swell. In this case, the word “buds” actually refers to the growth nodes on the rose cane.
These are flower buds. If you've waited for them to swell, you waited too long.
These "buds" are growth nodes. Prune when these start to swell.
Prune once-blooming roses as soon as they stop flowering (usually in early summer). If you prune them in spring, you will take the risk of cutting off the new buds and delaying blooms for at least a year.
The right time to prune re-blooming roses varies according to the gardener’s growing zone, but the time-honored convention tells us we should prune our roses as soon as the local forsythias are in bloom. By this time of year, there’s almost no chance that frost will damage the new growth stimulated by pruning.
In the warmest zones (9-11), roses never really go dormant and there isn’t enough frost to damage new growth, so pruning can be done at virtually any time of the year. I live in zone 9 and I try to finish pruning my roses before Christmas because I want them to start blooming in March or April.
As the pruning season approaches, don’t look forward to it with dread. Relax. Prune or don’t prune. The choice is yours. If you do decide to prune your roses, use an electric hedge clipper or follow the pruning rules, but remember that strict adherence to most of the old rules is no longer necessary or advisable. Don’t worry about having to balance on one foot and strike an acrobatic pose in order to make the proper 45-degree cut above an outward-growing node. And above all, don’t worry if you make mistakes. No rose has ever been killed by a bad pruning job. I once had a particularly nasty neighbor who watched me meticulously pruning a large climbing rose for half an hour, waited until my back was turned, leaned across the fence with a long pair of loppers, and cut all the way through the trunk of the rose at ground level. The rose grew back, the neighbor moved away, and life moved on.