How to Prune Different Roses

Different types of roses should be pruned in different ways.

Old Roses

Unlike most other roses, old roses flower on old wood as well as new wood and so they are allowed to develop permanent frameworks. Old roses tend to be divided in to those with a spreading habit and those with an upright habit. Those with a spreading habit are informal looking plants which need plenty of room so that they can be allowed to spread out fully without containing them. Old wood can be pruned out annually and they can be pruned to shape. They include species roses which are a type of shrub rose that mostly have single flowers and arching stems, although a few have double or semi-double flowers. Species roses need little pruning other than formative pruning to select a good framework. Once established they only need tip pruning and removal of dead, crossing or weak stems.

Those with an upright habit tend to be quite bushy plants and these don't need any heavy pruning either. Instead, they may need some thinning out to reduce the number of stems and encourage new growth. As well as species roses, old roses incorporate several other groups of note including gallicas, bourbons, damasks, albas, moss roses and China roses.  

Modern Shrub Roses

Shrub roses are most often called 'modern shrub roses' to distinguish them from old roses. These plants include a variety of shapes, from spreading to upright, and range of sizes although most are of a bushy upright habit. They can have single or double flowers and may be repeat flowering or not. These plants should not be pruned back hard like bush roses but only need a moderate prune and thinning where necessary.  Generally, between one and three of the least productive stems can be removed each year, main stems can be cut back by one third, and laterals by up to a half.

Bush Roses

Modern bush roses are the type which can be pruned back the hardest as described above. Bush roses are always repeat flowering. They include the groups known as hybrid teas which are large flowered and floribundas which are cluster flowered.

Bush roses need to be cut back hard to encourage new wood on which flowers will form. They can be cut back in winter after flowering has finished. In places where there are harsh winter frosts they may be cut back by one third to a half during winter and then given a second, lighter prune in the early spring after the risk of frost has subsided and before bud burst. During the growing season the only pruning needed is to deadhead spent flowers or remove dead or damaged stems.

Newly planted hybrid tea roses and floribundas should be pruned back hard in their first season cutting them close to ground level. Thereafter they can be pruned like other bush roses by removing unwanted and crowded growth and cutting back the stems. Floribundas do not need to be cut back as hard because the aim is to encourage the clusters of flowers on stems. When cutting back the clusters after flowering sometimes no suitable bud to cut back to is apparent and so pruning to the desired height is more appropriate. Usually this will encourage a dormant bud to grow beneath the pruning cut.   

Smaller bush roses include miniatures, patio roses and polyanthas. Miniatures are very small growing to a maximum of 25cm tall and wide. These plants only need a light prune and removal of dead wood. The others can be pruned hard like larger bush roses.    

Climbers and Ramblers

Climbers need to be trained up a wall or fence. Many look stunning trained over arches or over pergolas. Some of the more vigorous growing types like 'Kiftsgate' which can reach 20 meters are best suited to growing up tall trees. They bear flowers on the lateral stems which should be trimmed back each year to encourage new growth.

If grown against a wall or fence, both climbers and ramblers should be trained so that main stems are spread out horizontally forming a fan shape. Climbers tend to have fairly stiff stems so it's important to train them when they are first planted to achieve the best spread. Once the main stems have been fanned out the laterals can be trained horizontally. Climbers are repeat flowering so pruning is best done after flowering has finished in autumn through to spring. Throughout the growing season spent blooms can be deadheaded and unruly growth tied in or trimmed off if it is not wanted.
Young climbers should be spread out in a fan shape whilst shoots are still flexible. It's important to ensure some stems are trained fairly low down the fan because as the rose grows shoots will tend to grow upwards and so spaces lower down may remain unfilled. Only minimal pruning is needed on newly planted specimens (cut back to about 40cm). Once established, unproductive stems in the main framework can be pruned back and dead stems and leafless runners can be removed. Flowering stems can be cut back by up to two thirds. The length of stems can also be trimmed back if they get too long.  

Ramblers are more sprawling in habit than climbers. They produce new shoots from the base each year and generally they bear small flowers in large trusses containing many flowers, but they only flower once. They tend to bear flowers on wood from the previous year. Whole trusses of flowers can be trimmed off after flowers have died. Ramblers can be trained up a wall or fence but they are often trained horizontally.

When training young plants the main stems can be pruned back to 30 to 50cm from the ground and then spread out and tied in. Once established unwanted growth and spent flower stems can be cut out after flowering and every third main stem can be cut from the base to encourage more basal stems.    

Standard Bush Roses

Many roses can be used to form standard bush roses. They tend to be large flowered types like 'Aphrodite' or cluster types like 'Iceberg'. A typical full standard is about 1.1m tall whereas a half standard is about 75cm tall. Standard miniature and patio roses are never taller than about 50cm. The key to pruning is to treat the graft union as the ground level and prune for the type of rose which has been used for the head of the plant.  To keep the head well balanced in shape prune back the weakest side the hardest and just lightly trim the most vigorously growing side.

Weeping Standards

These generally range from 1.5 to 2m tall. Most are grafted onto rootstocks of R. canina or R. rugosa. Stakes on the plants tend to be thicker than those used to support lollipop standards since they carry more weight above the graft union. Often a wire umbrella shaped support is fixed to the top of the stake which provides further support beneath the weeping top part. Stems are tied in to this wire frame since most roses will not weep naturally although ramblers will. Suitable candidates for weeping roses are climbers, ramblers and trailing groundcovers.

After planting, weeping standards are left for the first couple of seasons before any formative pruning is undertaken. Only dead, weak or damaged growth is removed. After the first couple of seasons crowded stems may be thinned out.

Vigorous growing ramblers may need flowering stems pruned out each year. Less vigorous types may only need a few stems cut out every couple of years. In order to produce a cascade effect cut back stems to outwards and upwards facing buds. For climbers, prune to outwards and downwards facing buds to prevent strong shoots from heading upwards. The tips of very long shoots may also need pruning to keep them above ground level or at a desired height. Miniatures will only need light pruning to maintain shape.

How Hard To Prune?

As a general rule, roses can be pruned lighter but more often in warmer climates; and harder but less often in colder places. In frost or snow prone areas, pruning is mostly (if not exclusively) done in winter.

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