Pruning Modern Roses

What you’ll need

  • Lopping shears
  • Pruning shears
  • Pruning saw

step 1: Decide What You Want from Your Rose

Modern roses are raised either for cut flowers or to be attractive in the garden. Hybrid tea roses are usually raised for cut flowers, floribundas for landscape shrubs, and grandifloras for either. However, you can prune any of them for any purpose.

The directions here are for pruning roses to make good cut flowers, with fewer, larger flowers with long, straight stems. This is the more severe pruning. For a more attractive shrub, but smaller flowers with shorter stems, follow all the same steps, but cut less severely. Aim at removing only about 1/3 of the shrub, leaving it an attractive shape.

step 2: Remove Any Suckers

Modern roses are pruned in the winter in mild climates or early spring—about when forsythia blooms—in cold climates.

Begin by removing any suckers. Modern roses are grafted onto a different rose that has an especially strong root system. Sometimes this rootstock sends up canes, called suckers. Suckers originate from the ground or below the other canes. They are usually more vigorous than the rose’s own canes, and the leaves are different.

Remove them by digging down to where they originate at a root, and tearing them off. If you just cut them, they will regrow.

step 3: Remove Old Canes

Next look for canes that have gotten too old to be productive. A cane is any stem that originates in the ground or within 4 inches of the ground. You can tell an old cane by its rough bark and twiggy growth. Instead of long, straight branches, it makes many small branches that produce small flowers.

Cut out any canes you decide are too old. Use loppers—or a saw if the cane is too thick for loppers—to cut the cane as low as possible, or flush with the cane it’s growing from.

step 4: Remove Damaged and Crossing Canes

Cut out any canes that are broken or damaged.

Most canes grow from the center of the plant toward the outside, but sometimes a cane will grow back across the center of the plant. These are called “crossing” canes. They destroy the symmetry and balance of the plant and can rub against other canes. Prune out any crossing canes.

step 5: Remove Weak Canes

Now decide which of the remaining canes are strongest and remove everything else. A strong cane is a thick one. Weak canes are the diameter of a pencil, while strong ones can be as thick as the base of your thumb. Leave 5 of the strongest canes on a large, vigorous bush or 3 canes on a weaker one. The fewer canes you leave, the less work the bush has to do when it begins growing.

step 6: Cut the Canes to Knee Height

Shorten the remaining canes. If the end of the cane has been killed by winter cold, prune it back to healthy wood, no matter how low that is. Otherwise prune all the canes to about knee height. Make them a little shorter (about a foot high) if you want fewer flowers with long, straight canes for cutting, or if the shrub got too high last summer. Make them a little higher if you want an attractive landscape shrub (waist or chest high).

To make each cut, select a strong bud facing in the direction you would like the cane to grow—usually away from the center of the plant. Make a slanting cut with pruning shears about 1/4 inch above this bud. The top bud will begin growing in the spring, making new growth in the direction it’s facing.

Remove most of the side branches on the remaining canes, leaving none or just one or two if they are very strong.

If cane borers are active in your area, stick a thumbtack in the end of any cut ends larger than a pencil.

That’s it! Your rose is pruned to grow its best as soon as the weather warms a bit.