How to prune roses in 3 easy steps

Pruning roses can feel a bit scary. No wonder, as there seems to be a bewildering number of rules and regulations – so it’s no wonder many people just give up and leave their roses alone.

Do you really need to prune your roses? Well, strictly speaking, no. But then you don’t have to prune anything in your garden, but many plants will be healthier and more beautiful if you do. If don’t prune roses at all, you’ll end up peering at one or two blooms on the top of a few, tall stems. Pruning your roses keeps them to a reasonable size, and encourages branching, so you’ll have smaller, bushier plants with more flowers.

But it’s not really that hard! Some very comforting advice to remember is you can’t kill a rose by pruning it. A study a few years ago showed roses could be cut back with an electric hedge trimmer and would flower just as well, if not better, than those pruned in the conventional way with secateurs.

Not that I’d recommend getting the hedge trimmers out – if only because most of us don’t have acres and acres of roses to prune and once you become confident in rose pruning it really doesn’t take that much time at all to do it with secateurs and loppers.

Just before we start, this advice is for what are called bush roses – that is the normal everyday sort of rose most of us have. Don’t worry if it’s a Floribunda or an English Tea – the advice is the same!

Rosa Pat Austin
Rosa Pat Austin

So, here we go: 3 easy steps to pruning roses:

1. Prune any time between around October and February

Traditionally we were advised to prune roses in early spring after the last frost and just before the buds break. The weather is, however, becoming increasingly unpredictable. Cold snaps happen at odd times of year, and we have unseasonable warm spells in winter. It’s therefore very difficult to predict when the last frost will be and it’s quite possible this could happen after the roses have already formed buds.

At large gardens, such as Sissinghurst and Wisley, the gardeners and volunteers start pruning in late autumn and work through the winter. If they didn’t do this, they’d never get round to pruning all their roses.

So as long as you don’t prune when it’s actually freezing, just find a time that’s convenient to you: it really doesn’t matter that much! The worst that might happen is a mild spell then a cold snap after you prune your roses. This could lead to a flush of early, tender leaves, which then get a bit of frost damage. But don’t worry: you can cut out the damaged leaves if they bother you and the rose will produce new leaves to replace them.

2. Cut out dead stems and reduce the live stems by about one third to a half using secateurs.

Ok – I think I might have cheated here slightly and squeezed 2 steps into one. You don’t need to wait until your annual prune to remove dead stems and branches. Rose branches have a habit of dying off, and it’s fine to just remove them at any time when you notice them. You’ll know they are dead because they are brown, brittle and don’t have any leaves or buds on them. If you’re not sure, leave them until spring, and you’ll easily be able to tell.

You then need to cut back the live stems. The standard advice is to cut at a 45 degree angle above an outward facing bud. Now, anyone who’s tried this will know it’s actually pretty difficult to find an outward facing bud at the right place – or even an outward facing bud at all. The most important thing is to make sure your secateurs are sharp, and cut with confidence! Cut at a slant if you can.

Think about the size you want your rose to be – ie if you want to keep it small, cut off more and if you want it to be larger, cut higher. As a general rule, cut the stems by about one third to a half. You can cut it lower if you want – the rose won’t mind at all. However, a vigorous rose will put on a lot of growth in a season even if you cut it back to ground level, so it’s important, when buying a rose, to get one which fits the space you have.

3. Mulch your roses.

As I always tell my customers, you can’t over-mulch. There’s no point spending money and time on beautiful plants if you don’t feed them. Mulch is basically a thick layer of organic matter you spread over the ground, around the base of the rose. It could be garden compost, well-rotted manure, or a garden centre multi-purpose compost (peat-free, please!). Don’t spread it right up to the rose stem – leave a space so the mulch isn’t actually touching the base of the rose.

As well as feeding the rose, the mulch will help prevent disease, keep moisture in and repress weeds. Believe me, your roses will thank you!

That’s it – done! Of course, there is more detail we could go into, but if you follow these 3 steps more-or-less your roses should be healthy and flower beautifully for you.

Do you have any tricks or tips for roses – or any favourite rose varieties? I’d love to know.

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