Shrub roses

How to prune roses

How to prune roses, arguably the British gardener’s favourite plant. John Hoyland offers essential advice on how to cut and shape them to create long-lasting, healthy plants with plentiful flowers. Photographs Gavin Kingcome

The point about pruning roses is not just to encourage lots of flowers: it is about producing a healthy, attractive, long-lived plant. And you don’t get that with the swipe of a hedge-trimmer.

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Apple 'discovery'
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To start

The first task, whatever the type of rose you are pruning, is to take out any dead or diseased stems, which should be removed at their base. Damaged or withered stems should be cut back to a healthy green shoot. When you cut through a rose stem it should be clean and white. If it is black, or has a dark centre, cut again further down the stem.

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First steps: When you begin your rose pruning regime, first remove any stems that are dead, diseased or damaged, right down to the base, so that the cut stem looks white and healthy.
© Gavin Kingcome

When?

Pruning roses can be done at any time between autumn and early spring.

Doing the job early gives you a neat plant through the winter, which doesn’t harbour disease and won’t be injured by high winds. The root system of roses is not as extensive as most other shrubs, and plants are susceptible to ‘wind rock’. The problem with early pruning is that frost can damage the newly-pruned stems. To get the best of both pruning regimes I prune my roses in two stages: they get a first prune in early winter to clean them up and reduce their height, and another, to finish the job, in the spring.

Shrub roses
Shrub roses: These can become tangled. Remove old woody stems to ‘decongest’. Cut out right down at the base  and the thinning process will allow light and air into the shrub.
© Gavin Kingcome

Shrub roses

  • In the autumn, tackle free-standing shrub roses that have become congested.
  • Cut out old, woody stems at the base using long-handled loppers. To encourage better flowering, and to reduce the plant’s susceptibility to disease, you must create a plant that is open in the middle to allow light and air into the shrub. Cut off stems growing diagonally across the centre of the shrub and those rubbing against each other.
  • Next, chop off the top quarter of the rose’s growth. Don’t worry at this stage about where you cut.
  • The following spring, prune the top stems to a new bud that is growing away from the centre of the plant. Using sharp secateurs, cut just above the bud at an angle of about 45°, with the blade sloping away from it. Smaller side-shoots should be cut back to two or three buds.
  • Thorns can do a lot of damage, so wear thick gloves. Hybrid tea and floribunda Shorter hybrid tea and floribunda roses need to be pruned back to 45cm high, which means shortening shoots by one third to a half of their length. Again, cut just above an outward-facing bud with a sloping cut.

Thin stems (the diameter of a pencil) won’t produce many flowers. Cut back close to the main stem to stimulate stronger growth. These roses are often grafted on to the top of a tall stem to create a standard rose and should be pruned in the same way as you would if they were grafted at ground level.

Special breeding

Weeping standard roses are produced by grafting a vigorous rambling or climbing rose on to a tall stem. During the autumn cut all the stems that have flowered to a new strong shoot near the crown of the plant. By the following spring lots of new shoots will be growing at odd angles. Remove these to retain the ‘weeping’ appearance. Weeping standards are just one of the improbable forms of roses produced by rose breeders.

Miniature, or ‘patio’, roses have none of the exuberance that attracts most of us to growing roses, but are, nevertheless, very popular. Their pruning, like their charm, is minimal. Remove the dead flowers as they fade, cut out desiccated stems in the autumn and trim the whole plant by about a third in the spring.

Deadheading roses
By removing flowers as they fade, you encourage more buds to be produced and so extend the flowering season of your rose.
© Gavin Kingcome

Ramblers and climbers

  • In general, rambling roses produce new stems annually from the ground; climbing roses produce new stems from everywhere along their existing ones.
  • Each autumn remove about a third of the stems of rambling roses down to a new shoot near the base.
  • Climbing roses fall into two categories: those that flower once a year (the flowers grow from last year’s stems) and those that repeat flower (the flowers grow from current-year sideshoots).
  • With once-flowering varieties, once again, remove one in three of the main stems and then prune the flowered sideshoots on all the stems to two or three buds away from the main framework.
  • Repeat-flowering climbers tend not to be vigorous plants and need little pruning other than deadheading.
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Suckers

Most roses are budded or grafted on to the rootstock of a wild rose. Occasionally a rose will produce stems from the rootstock rather than from the grafted plant. These are called suckers and are very vigorous. Left to grow they will dominate the whole plant, leaving you with a wild rose rather than the elegant hybrid you originally planted. The swelling at the base of the stem at soil level is the place where the rose was grafted. Shoots appearing from below ground or underneath the grafting point are probably suckers. They are usually fatter than grafted stems, covered in more thorns, and have seven leaves rather than the five typical of grafted roses. To remove them, follow the stem down to the point it grows from, clearing away the soil if necessary, and pull it away. If you cut it down rather than pull it off you will only encourage more shoots.

Pruning roses
© Gavin Kingcome

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