How to… prune roses

In my garden I’ve inherited some rather mature rose plants that seem to have produced blooms all the way through summer to late autumn. They smell incredible and the colours are a delicate orangey-pink. The only problem is the plants have grown so tall I can barely see them and you can forget about cutting them to place in my house!

One of my unidentified roses

Before Christmas, on my RHS Level 2 Horticulture course, we learned how to prune hybrid tea roses and so now I’m going to attempt to use the same principles to prune my own.

This week’s How To is going to be set out a little differently. I’m going to show photos of step-by-step but the writing will be more conversational in style and it’ll be more like a question and answer session.

If you are an expert on pruning roses and you think I’ve made any mistakes please do let me know in either the comments or in a message as it’s great to share knowledge!

What is pruning?

Pruning is basically the cutting back of a plant to keep it at a required size and/or promoting more vigorous growth and flower heads. Most trees, shrubs and plants like roses and wisteria will need pruning each year. But as with everything I’ve learned so far about plants is that each one is different and has different needs so it’s important to do your research!

When should you prune roses?

For most roses, the best time to prune is late winter so Feb-March. This is because the frosts should be over by then so you won’t kill off any new growth that forms after you’ve pruned it. It’s also not properly started growing yet so you won’t be cutting off new growth. Though saying that, one of mine does have some leaves forming already! Some roses might need to be pruned at a different time of year but you’d just need to check with the individual plant just in case.

What if you don’t know what type of rose you have?

I’m in this boat this year. The RHS website has a very handy guide for general pruning of roses but also helps you identify a rose that you may have. From consulting the guide I believe mine is a rambling or climbing rose. This type of rose is very tall and has long stems that seem to like leaning against the wall and is supported by neighbouring bushes. I won’t really find out whether I have a rambler or a climber until it starts flowering so I’ll have to check back in when flowering begins again.

What do I need?

First, make sure your secateurs are clean and sharp. Roses can be quite prone to disease so any bacteria on your blades could infect the plant. A simple wipe with anti-bacterial solution should be fine. The sharper the blade the less chance of you crushing the stem or leaving behind bits of stem that can also get infected.

Depending on the type of the rose, you might want to wear thick gloves that cover your wrists and some eye protection. This will be down to your discretion and judgement on the prickliness of the thorns. Mine are quite “woody” so don’t have many thorns so I won’t need my big gauntlet gloves like last time!

I was wearing gloves when I cut them, honest!

How do I know what to cut and where?

First thing’s first, inspect your plant and take your time. You shouldn’t start pruning if you have a 10 minute window of time. The more experienced you get the quicker you’ll be but it’s wise to step back and observe what you’re doing regularly. Generally when pruning you start with the 4 D’s.

What are the four Ds?

According to David Austin Roses the four Ds go in this order: Dead, dying, diseased and damaged. You want to first remove any stems that look dead, have any signs of disease or damage. These stems will need to be cut as far to the base of it as possible to prevent spreading.

How do I know if a stem is dead or dying?!

Generally dead stems will look dry, be a paler colour than the rest of the stems and often have a hole through the middle. If you are unsure you can gently scrape a bit of the side of the stem and if you see a green colour it’s still alive. If it’s still dry and brown it is dead. Dying stems may not be dead the whole way down but you can see at the tip it is starting to dry up.

Ok so what about disease?

Disease can often look like black blobs or there might be some discolouration. Basically, anything that looks like it shouldn’t be there like fungus or spots. If you’re unsure, use Dr. Google and see if you can find out what it is.

This bit looks dead, dying AND diseased!

And damaged?

Similar to disease but it could be damage caused by pests, birds or perhaps a football crashing onto the plant earlier in the year. It could be broken or look crushed. It will probably be discoloured too.

So I’ve got the 4 Ds out of the way, what next?

Next we check for any dormant buds. Up the side of the stems there should be little knobbly bits that are very soft and delicate (so feel for them gently!) and this is where new growth will begin. This is where you will cut to just above so it will become the new leader for the stem.

Can you see the little knobbly pink bit?

You want to consider where you will want the rose to grow and where you want to see the roses. For example, you wouldn’t want to make your leader one facing the wall or that will grow directly into another stem. As a general rule of thumb, you want the outward facing buds to grow and you want the roses to come about eye level so they can be enjoyed.

What is the actual cutting technique for this?

You need to no more than 5mm above the bud at a slope away from the bud (about 45degree angle). The reason for the measurement is the energy from the plant is now going to the bud so anything above it will just die off and can then cause disease. The reason for sloping away from the bud is so that when it rains (or you water them) water won’t pool into the bud but will run off the side preventing, you guessed it disease. Didn’t I tell you roses can be quite disease prone?

I’ve got my leading stems, what now?

You need to remove any stems that are crossing over with other stems. This eliminates competition but also stops the stems from rubbing and getting… what is it?…diseased.

My rose is starting to look pretty bare now. Are you sure I should have cut all that off?

Yes, don’t worry. I remember feeling really worried I’d just hacked back this plant and was left with 4 twigs poking out of the ground! Have faith, spring is coming and you will be surprised!

It still seems a little too tall…

Yes, if you have a rose like mine that is essentially one thick woody stem for a good 1.5m before anything actually happens, you don’t want to cut it back too far because you could end up shocking it and it may not grow back. The RHS recommends to cut it down by about 1/3 or 1/2. This doesn’t have to be precise with a measuring tape, just using your eye is fine.

Can you come and show me?

Absolutely! If you are based in Bristol, I’d love to come and check out your roses. We can either do it together or I can do it for you. I don’t mind if you know the exact rose or not, we can look at the specifics of your plant or use the general guide above and give it a go. I can also offer a free consultation if you want to do it yourself but just want that little bit of reassurance. Contact me via the blog page in whichever way you prefer.

Have fun and happy pruning!