All roses benefit from pruning to improve their appearance and encourage better flowering. Pruning also helps reduce disease issues by increasing airflow and light penetration.
Hand shears and long-handled lopping shears are needed to prune roses properly. The hand shears are used on canes up to 3/4 inch in diameter, while the lopping shears are used on larger canes and difficult-to-reach places. Use sharp tools. Dull tools tend to crush the canes. A pair of heavy-duty leather gloves will help protect your hands while pruning. Rose gloves are longer, covering the forearm providing additional protection from thorns.
In general, pruning is done in the early spring and starts by removing dead tissue from disease or winter kill. Then canes can be selectively removed to encourage vigorous growth and open up the plant to promote good air circulation and light penetration to reduce disease issues and improve bloom. Specific information on how to prune different types of roses is below.
Shrub roses are sold as easy-to-care-for plants and their pruning is relatively easy as well. Plants typically bloom continuously on new wood from early summer to frost. Prune just as buds begin to break in spring (early to mid-April). Start by removing any stems killed by winter temperatures. Then (if needed) prune, out crowded stems, especially in the shrub's interior. If heading cuts are made (those made anywhere on the stem except at the base), make them just above buds that are pointed outward.
While not necessary, the removal of spent blooms (deadheading) throughout the summer will encourage additional blooms to form and improve their appearance. Stop deadheading by late summer (late August, early September) to help plants prepare for the upcoming winter and allow ornamental rose hips to form.
This group includes the native roses, such as meadow rose (Rosa blanda), Carolina rose (Rosa carolina), and prairie rose (Rosa arkansana), as well as other old garden and species roses, including rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa), gallica rose (Rosa gallica), white York rose (Rosa × alba), cabbage or moss rose (Rosa × centifolia), and damask rose (Rosa × damascena), among others.
Most old garden and species roses don't have much winter damage, but any dead stems can be removed as soon as they are noticed in spring. Plants bloom once in late spring, so prune any wayward or overgrown canes after blooms fade. Spent flowers can be removed at this time. If rose hips are desired, don't deadhead. Some of these types spread by suckers. Dig or prune off suckers that are not wanted after new growth is done, typically in early to mid-summer.
The upper portions of modern roses, such as hybrid teas, floribundas, and grandifloras, typically have winter dieback due to exposure to low winter temperatures and extreme temperature changes. Pune out the dead wood after the winter protection is removed from modern roses in late March to mid-April. Live wood is green and has plump, healthy buds. When pruned, the center of the stem (pith) is white. Dead wood is brown and has no live buds. Its pith is brown or gray.
When pruning roses, cut at least 1 inch below the dead, brown-colored areas on the canes. Make slanting cuts about one-fourth inch above healthy, outward-facing buds in the same direction as the bud. Remove the entire cane if there is no sign of life. Also, remove any diseased wood.
Because of our severe winter weather, hybrid tea, grandiflora, and floribunda roses often suffer a great deal of winter damage. Normally, the primary objective of rosarians in the upper midwest is to remove all dead wood and save as much of the live tissue as possible. If roses suffer little winter damage because of a mild winter, prune the rose canes back to within 8 to 12 inches of the ground.
These roses have vigorous growth that requires the long stems to be trained to some type of support, trellis, or fence. They do not climb like vines, so they will need help and pruning to get them to utilize and stay on the supports. Without pruning, plants become unruly, unattractive and do not bloom as well.
Some climbing roses bloom on new wood and others bloom on old wood. A limited number of cultivars are successful in Iowa. Make sure to grow only those recommended for a northern climate. These cultivars typically bloom on the current year's growth.
Most climbing roses see a significant amount of winter dieback. Start by pruning out dead canes in spring as buds begin to break. Once dead canes are removed, the only additional pruning required is to train them to their support. This is often done with a series of heading cuts to force lateral buds to break and grow in the desired direction. Throughout the growing season, the vigorous new growth can be shortened and thinned to maintain the desired plant form or to remove a wayward cane.
Throughout the summer months, deadheading (the removal of spent flowers) can promote additional blooms and improve appearance.
Hybrid Teas, Grandifloras, & Floribundas
Modern roses, such as hybrid teas, grandifloras, and floribundas, should be deadheaded to conserve energy and encourage repeat bloom. During the first growing season, once all the flowers in the cluster have died, remove the faded flowers above the uppermost 3-leaflet leaf. Removing a larger amount of foliage reduces the young plant s ability to manufacture food and may slow its growth.
When deadheading established roses, the stem may be cut back to a 5-leaflet leaf. Retain at least two 5-leaflet leaves on each shoot. Using hand shears, cut about 1/4 inch above the leaf with the cut parallel to the leaf's angle. Stop deadheading hybrid teas, grandifloras, and floribundas in late summer (late August or September). The development of rose hips (fruits) slows plant growth and helps prepare the plants for winter.
Shrub, Landscape, & Old-Fashioned
Shrub or landscape roses rarely need deadheading, but doing so may improve their appearance and promote even more blooms throughout the summer. There is usually no need to deadhead old-fashioned roses as many are one-time bloomers. Plus, the hips of some are quite attractive.
Do not prune roses in the fall. Pruning stimulates new growth. That new growth will not have an opportunity to properly harden off before winter, leaving it vulnerable to more winter damage.
Even established growth that has properly hardened off will see some stem die-back over winter. For landscape or shrub roses, it is typically pretty minor. For other types, like hybrid tea roses, it can be extensive, especially without winter protection. During mild winters, the amount of stem die-back will be much less than in more severe winters. Leave all stem material in place in case there is a mild winter and less dead material will have to be pruned out.
The best time to prune roses is in early spring, typically between late March and mid-April in Iowa.
- Growing Roses in Iowa
- Rose Types and Cultivars for Iowa
- Caring for Roses in Iowa (publication)
- Miniature Roses (publication)
- The Griffith Buck Roses (publication)
- Griffith Buck: Rose Hybridizer (publication)
- Roses for the Home (publication)
- Common Rose Diseases (publication)
- How to Propagate Roses
- How to Overwinter Roses in Iowa
- How to Plant and Transplant Roses in Iowa
- Pests and Disease of Roses