Don’t be a Prude When Pruning Roses

One of the most common gardening questions I am asked (besides how to prune hydrangeas) is how to prune roses.

There are TONS of articles and videos out there on how to prune roses. I encourage you to spend a little time perusing the internet. There are some good tips and things to keep in mind.

I will not attempt to address all that has a-rose from my past experiences. I will only scratch the surface in answering a few questions here:

What type of rose are you pruning?
Before you get started, consider what type of rose you are going to work on. Most roses grown in this part of Indiana fall into three basic groups: hybrid teas, shrub and groundcover roses. Wellfield only has the latter two in its collection. We grow many Knock-Out and Easy Elegance roses as well as some drift roses.

What equipment do I need?
I would have a pair of sharp bypass pruners for most of my cutting efforts and a pair of bypass loppers for longer harder to reach areas. Wearing long-sleeves and good thick gloves surely is a must unless you are a masochist. Take a spray bottle with a bleach solution to sanitize your cutting instruments between shrubs.

When should I prune my roses?
Prune most shrub roses when the forsythia is blooming is the answer I give for Michiana gardens. It helps to see the buds beginning to swell so one knows which buds are viable and which ones were knocked out by winter’s chill. Single flush bloomers (blooming on old wood), like rugosa roses, are best given a light pruning in summer after blooms fade. Repeat bloomers like Knock-Outs and Easy Elegance (bloom on current season growth) follow the early spring rule.

How much should I prune off?
I would consider the particular shrub rose, the space available to it, and its context. Are you using the plant as a specimen, part of a mass, front/back of planting bed, hedge, scale of other plants around it, and how much light is it going to receive? For example, we prune roses close to paths tight. Knock-Out roses require little pruning, but keep in mind they can grow quite a bit in one season. They may only need a slight trimming, with an occasional rejuvenating effort every few years, if your shrub rose is not as floriferous as you would like.

Cutting shrub roses back by a third to half is a good rule of guideline to consider, being careful to not over prune, however. If you notice you have a lot of thick dead canes at the base of the shrub (i.e. carnage from past years), it means you are pruning too harshly for your location. The rose plant stores much energy in its recent seasonal growth. It stresses the older, woodier canes if you remove too much of those energy stores, eventually killing it outright.

What are the steps I should take?
Again, there are some different approaches depending on the desired effect and rose type. We will focus on repeat-blooming shrub roses in this description.

  1. Prune off the top third of the plant so it is easier to access the lower portions and center of the plant. You do not need to be gentle or particular cut location, just cut.
  2. Look for and remove dead, diseased or damaged (i.e. winter kill or cane borer) wood.
  3. Look for and remove spindly or crossing/crowded growth or growth growing toward the center of the plant. Keep the center of the rose open and airy to lower disease pressure later in the season. I like to have three to five good, vigorous canes per plant when I am done.
  4. Cut on an angle to a quarter inch above a strong, outward facing bud.


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Pruning shrub roses does not have to be a daunting task. It might seem like a thorn in your garden side, but with a little practice you will become quite handy and be asked by neighbors to do it for them. Then you know you really have “made the cut” as a rose master.

Josh Steffen
Horticulture Manager

10 thoughts on “Don’t be a Prude When Pruning Roses

  1. Oh, one of my serious peeves! I can not get gardeners to prune them enough! They leave them looking like shorter versions of the thickets they started with! I have even seen ‘other’ ‘gardeners’ shear them with hedge shears! Seriously! What a mess! If they were not grafted, I would rather cut them to the ground and let them start over.

    1. ninacwbg

      Hi Don, According to Josh, it depends on the rose type and what you want. For Hybrid Tea roses and Rugosa roses yes, if hips are not desired. For Shrub Roses like knockouts, it is not necessary to remove the buds, but it enhances the look if you do. Hope this answers your question!

  2. Phyllis

    Hello, I have wanted to prune my rose bush way down. But it is so much work using my pruners. I have let it get too large to my liking. Can I use a hedger? I’ve heard roses do not do well for a while when a hedger is used. It’s a knock out or a carpet rose bush but can’t remember which. Thanks

    1. good morning, Phyllis; while there are videos online demonstrating pruning rose bushes with a hedger/extension handle hedger, Horticulture Manager Josh Steffen recommends not ever using a hedger to prune a rose bush. Also a question to consider (from Josh’s article) “How much should I prune off?” – -of course the answer depends on the application and what your specific needs are for the rose (and the type of rose… may need to really dig into your cultivar type as ‘knockout’ and ‘carpet’ are on very different ends of the spectrum, growth/habit-wise.) Certainly not a finite answer, but a few items for consideration. Hope that’s helpful!

  3. NIKKI

    This may be a dumb question. I have my rose bushes in big pots and brought themn the house fir the winter. Will they stay alive like this?

    1. Hi, Nikki – – here’s a response from Josh Steffen, our horticulture manager: “Roses like other temperate plants need a rest. Taking the shrub indoors I would think could be hard on it, exhausting the plant. It needs to enter a dormant period with certain chilling requirements to then break dormancy in the spring. You don’t need to worry about all that just follow the suggestions in the below link. A cool space in the garage is all the further “indoors” the rose needs to go. – hope that’s helpful.”

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