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Rose Articles

Spring Time and Pruning Roses

by Brenda Viney

pruned roseThere’s no right or wrong way to prune and we all have our own ideas of how to do it. You can follow what is laid out ahead, or, as suggested by the Royal National Rose Society in England, you can use the “easy care method” on your modern roses. This consists of cutting the roses to half their height with pruners or a hedge trimmer, leaving all weak and twiggy growth on the plant. These roses flourish just as well as those pruned in the “traditional method”!



Spring is now the preferred season to prune - wait until the forsythia bushes bloom in your neighbourhood before starting. This can happen any time from mid to the end of February. We no longer do “fall” pruning as we want the bushes to go into dormancy on their own time, not by forcing them into it. Vancouver’s winter weather is sometimes quite mild so cutting down your roses in a mild fall will start them growing again rather than gradually going dormant on their own. Also, stripping leaves off the bushes is now not done as the leaves feed the plant and we want them to feed for as long as they want to into winter to make a stronger plant. In fall we might top off tall roses to prevent them from flying around in the wind, but that’s all.


tool Why do we prune? To prevent hybrid tea bushes from growing 7-9’ in the air with blooms way up at the top where no one can see them! And also to keep roses within the bounds we allot them; to help rejuvenate bushes by cutting out old canes to allow new ones to grow; and to clean up our bushes by cutting out old, unproductive or dead canes.

When pruning your roses, always keep this thought in the back of your mind…you will NOT kill your rose bushes by pruning them! After extremely cold winters you may have to prune canes down to 1” above ground level – this still won’t kill the bushes, as long as the crown or grafted area is planted 1-2” below ground level and is still alive. Most roses can withstand -15°C and even colder if protected by snow cover. The canes may die back but the crown and roots will be alive and sometimes will grow back even bigger and getter than before.


Disinfecting your pruners between bushes to avoid spreading disease is recommended but not done as often as it should. The best method is to spray the pruners with Lysol or a solution of 10% bleach to water (dry well after applying water).

Sealing the pruning wound can also be done but is not really necessary in our climate. Use pruning paint or a dab of Elmer’s white glue on the cut surface to keep out boring insects.


pruningThese days most people are pruning lighter and keeping more canes on the bushes to get a good garden display of blooms. Keep in mind that the cane growing out of another cane will most often be smaller in diameter than the original one so you’ll want to prune out anything smaller than a pencil in hybrid tea roses so the canes can hold up the heavy blooms. Floribundas, minis, some shrubs and OGRs naturally grow more spindly canes and will be pruned less harshly.

Light pruning cuts about 1/3 off the length of the canes. Many rosarians are using this method as the plants bloom earlier in the season and have more flowers. On some plants though this method can lead to tall, spindly bushes with poor quality blooms on weak stems. You’ll figure it out quickly if the canes bend over from the weight of the blooms – if this happens, simply cut down lower on the canes when dead-heading after the first flush of blooms.

Moderate pruning cuts hybrid tea and floribunda canes back by about 1/2, to about 12-24” high. Moderate pruning is done by many members as it nicely reduces the size of roses on canes thick enough to hold up the flower heads.

Hard pruning cuts canes on hybrid tea roses back to about 5-8” above the ground, producing less but sometimes larger blooms, perfect for rose show exhibitors who want the perfect bloom to happen later in the season in time for our June rose show. Hard pruning is also recommended for newly planted roses. We are seeing less and less ‘hard’ pruning of roses these days.


Cutting a cane anywhere along its length will work just fine and won’t harm your plant at all. BUT, if you want to make your plants “look good” without any dead bits and pieces of stubs on the canes, you can follow the follow pruning method.

All pruning or deadheading cuts to any type of rose are made the same way – by cutting 1/4" above a swelling new bud that will produce a leaf, or above an existing leaf. Prune above a bud/leaf that points outwards rather than into the bush – to help keep the centre of the bush open to allow air movement and, hopefully, minimize disease. Come in from the outside of the cane and cut down at a 45° angle, staying 1/4" above the bud.



The purpose of pruning is to remove all extraneous material, leaving only strong, healthy canes, which can adequately support this year’s new growth. Ultimately, you want to keep a nice framework of healthy, thick canes for your rose to use this year. If you hilled up your roses for winter, you’ll have to carefully pull it back to do your pruning (remove by hand or hose off) – then, if the weather is still cold, put the hill back on until we’re assured of warmer weather.

Now continue to remove any younger canes which cross the middle of the bush. These canes should either be removed entirely or back to the major cane from which they originated. Then, remove canes that crowd each other, leaving the larger one of each crowded pair. Finally, if there is any little twiggy growth remaining anywhere on the bush, remove it. When finished, the ideal hydbrid tea-type rose bush will have only sturdy, healthy canes growing from the bud union.

Check the PITH – When you cut a branch off, hold the cut end up and look inside the cane. There are several layers of bark and then, right inside the middle core of the cane is the PITH. If you poke it with your nail, it’s soft and should be the color of the inside of an apple – white. If the PITH looks beige or darker, keep cutting off pieces of cane until you see white. If you are uncertain about the colour, cut a little further down and see what you get – if still unsure, leave the cane on the bush and see if it grows for you – if not, cut down to some new growth or cut the cane right off. The bush can also fool you…the pith might look good, growth will start, leaves will grow and then suddenly, the leaves will die. This means the pith was damaged further down the cane but there was enough food in the cane for a few leaves to grow. Not to worry – simply cut the cane further down or completely out. Note that some shrubs and OGRs can have browner pith on healthy older canes – when in doubt, leave those canes on.

Finger Pruning – sounds odd but it really works! Wherever you see a new bud sprouting along your rose canes (right where a leaf grew last year – you’ll see a tiny ‘scar’ where the leaf was), you might see up to 3 buds growing from that spot. There is the potential for 1, 2 or 3 new canes to grow from each bud eye BUT you only want 1 strong cane to grow rather than 2 or 3 spindly ones. Using your finger, gently rub out 1 or 2 of the little buds, usually leaving the fatter middle bud to grow into a healthy cane. You can also rub out any canes starting to grow into the centre of your bush or growing into other canes. Do this every couple of weeks to catch the buds in the early stages of growth…but don’t worry if you don’t get to this job – your roses will still grow and bloom for you!


Hybrid Tea roses are usually left with as many good-sized, new, green healthy canes as you can, about 2-3’ high depending on the original size (note – Peace rose and its descendants do not like hard pruning – prune very lightly). Most of the secondary canes growing off the main canes are cut back to the main canes - some of the stronger growing secondary canes can be left on but cut back to 3-5” above the main cane.

ogr Floribunda & Patio roses naturally have a thinner framework of canes than HTs (pencil thin or less). You can cut out very weak, floppy growth but you’ll be left with more original canes and secondary growth. As floribundas usually grow shorter, cut back original stems by about 1/3 or 1/2 on taller bushes.
mini rose Mini roses grow either like hybrid teas or floribundas and can be cut back by either of those methods depending on how big you wish the bush to grow. Or you can simply give them a haircut by lopping off half of the canes in a slightly rounded fashion. Shrub roses can be pruned to keep them in bounds or not pruned at all. Most shrub roses can take 3-5 years to reach their desired size so pruning out dead/damaged wood is all that is usually necessary.
ogr Old Garden Roses that only bloom once grow on OLD wood produced the previous year. Do NOT prune these roses at this time of year – prune them lightly, if needed, right after flowering in the summer. OGRs that repeat bloom can be pruned lightly in the spring. Most OGRs need very little pruning, except to keep them in bounds, and new plants take a number of years to achieve the natural carefree shape that is the character of OGRs. Eventually, when you see old thick canes, you can start cutting out one every year or so to allow room for new, more productive canes to grow.
climber rose Climbers are a little different to all other roses and some are treated differently than others – read up on your variety for different directions to these. Any new growth should be tied into a horizontal position. This encourages secondary or ‘lateral’ growth off the main canes resulting in flowers at the ends of all the laterals, rather than simply at the top of a tall main cane. If all your main canes have been tied down, you will simply cut the lateral canes down to above the 2nd or 3rd bud eye up from the main cane. You’ll be left with tied down main canes with 6-8” long secondary canes growing all along them. Every 4-5 years or so you can cut out an old cane to make room for new growth.
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