How to prune roses – for an abundance of flowers

Learn how to prune roses to increase flower production and get the best out of these much-loved plants

How to prune roses - pink roses in a garden
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Knowing how to prune roses the right way is essential if you want to keep the plants healthy and ensure maximum blooms.

Roses have been prized for their beauty and fragrance for millennia, and today they play a starring role in gardens across the globe – adding romance and color to borders, walls, and patios. 

You will be spoiled for choice when looking for rose garden ideas as the plant offers endless color and style variations.

Though they produce some of the most graceful flowers, roses are actually very hardy shrubs. Even an overzealous prune is unlikely to harm them, so you can cut with confidence. 

However, in order to get the best out of roses, you should follow a few simple pruning rules.

Bear in mind that not all roses require the same treatment. Learn how to prune climbing roses or ramblers, if you are pruning that variety.

Golden Beauty roses

(Image credit: Melanie Griffiths)

How to prune roses – what you need

Before tackling rose pruning, make sure you have the right tools for the job – starting with a good pair of secateurs. 

‘It may sound obvious, but the most important thing when pruning roses is that your secateurs are sharp, so they won’t tear or harm the plant,’ says Period Living’s gardening expert Leigh Clapp.

You can sharpen your secateurs at home using a sharpening stone or diamond sharpener, although some tool manufacturers offer a cleaning and sharpening service.

While secateurs are suitable for pruning most green rose stems, for thicker, mature branches and dead wood you will require loppers or a hand saw.

As when planting roses, you will also need thick gardening gloves to protect your hands from the thorns – preferably leather gauntlets that will also cover your lower arms. 

Rose thorns can harbor harmful bacteria, so if you do cut yourself, clean the wound with an antibacterial spray.

Pink rambling roses

(Image credit: Future / Annaick Guitteny)

How to prune rose bushes

It’s important to prune rose bushes at the right time of year. ‘Prune in late winter to early spring, just when the first growth is beginning,’ says Richard Austin from world-renowned rose grower David Austin (opens in new tab).

If you prune your rose bushes too early, you risk making the plant more vulnerable to frost damage; too late and you will be removing valuable new growth. 

Austin advises that it’s better to prune them late than not at all, so even if spring has sprung, you should still proceed. But never prune when the stems are frozen or frost-covered.

Bear in mind that roses take a couple of years to establish, and young plants need a lighter trim. ‘Don’t prune shrub roses too hard until they have established over the first couple of years, to help the stems mature and support the large blooms,' says Clapp.

  1. Prune mature rose bushes down to half their size – or if a young rose, remove up to a third. It is helpful to insert a cane into the ground next to the rose at the new desired height, to act as a gage.
  2. Use your secateurs to cut the stems. ‘Don’t worry about cutting back too much on established plants – and don’t worry about where you cut the stem,' advises Austin. However, to help the new shoots to grow outwards and maintain a more open center, gardening expert Matt James recommends you ‘make a gentle sloping cut, just above a healthy outward-facing bud.’
  3. Remove any dead or diseased stems right at their base – dead stems will be completely brown without signs of green. You may require a hand saw for very hard dead wood.
  4. Remove thin, weak stems that easily bend, as these will not be able to support new growth.
  5. Where parts of the plant are congested, remove a stem or two, to allow in more air and light. Also, where two stems rub together, select one for removal.
  6. Strip all foliage from the plant – you don’t want any leaves left. However, do not compost them, as this can spread disease.
  7. ‘Shaping is essential – try to create a rounded shrub,’ says Austin. This will mean cutting the sides a little shorter than the middle stems.
  8. ‘Don’t be alarmed if your rose looks significantly smaller! The growth will strengthen and re-establish quickly in the spring,’ Austin adds.
  9. Finally, clear up fallen leaves that may harbor diseases, apply rose feed according to packet instructions, and mulch the plants. ‘Mulching with a good layer of well-rotted manure retains moisture, limits weeds and suppresses diseases such as black spot,’ says Clapp.
  10. Once roses have flowered in the summer, remove the spent blooms. ‘Deadheading roses regularly will encourage more flowering shoots for repeat-flowering roses,’ says Clapp. ‘A mid-summer tidy up will help to reinvigorate tired roses.’

Standard tree roses in rose garden

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

How to prune tree or standard roses

Tree – or standard – roses, which are grafted on top of a long central stem, should be pruned in the same way as rose bushes. However, closer attention should be paid to creating a nicely rounded shape. 

When pruning a rose tree, you want to minimize stems that are growing very upright, favoring those with well-positioned outward-facing buds. Try to ensure you have a good balance of stems growing in each direction.

With tree roses, you also need to pay close attention to ‘suckers’, which are stems growing from the base of the trunk, from the root stock, that take energy from the main rose. Remove these as they appear.

After the first flush of blooms, tidy up the shape by giving the tree a light trim. This will also encourage a second flowering.

Roses covered in frost

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to prune roses for winter

It is not a good idea to prune roses for winter, as you will leave them vulnerable to the cold and frost. For the best results, time your pruning for the very end of winter and the onset of spring.

However, where rose branches are damaged in the wind, it is best to remove them from the plant.

You could also take rose cuttings in the fall or winter, to grow new plants.

Paul’s Himalayan Musk rose

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

How to prune roses in summer

Most roses don’t need pruning in the summer, with the exception of rambling roses. ’Prune ramblers just after flowering, as they then will produce new wood for next year’s blooms,’ says Clapp.

However, after the first flush of flowering, you can tidy up your roses with a light trim to maintain their appearance and encourage more buds to develop.

Monty Don’s June rose pruning tips, rose shrub in garden

(Image credit: Future)

Pruning neglected roses

If you have inherited a rose that is overgrown or covered with a lot of dead wood, you can renovate it by giving it a hard prune at the end of winter, just as spring is about to emerge. This advice will work for whatever type of rose it is.

  1. Cut back the stems to make the plant around 12 inches tall.
  2. Remove any diseased, damaged or dead wood. You will likely need a hand saw to remove dead stems at the base, as they can be very hard.
  3. Where stems are crossed and rubbing together, choose one to remove.
  4. Remove any spindly, weak stems.
  5. If the plant is congested, remove a stem or two to allow in more air and light.
  6. Remove all foliage from the plant, and clear any leaves from the ground, to minimize the risk of disease.
  7. You must feed the rose to help it rejuvenate. Use a specific rose food and follow the packet instructions.
  8. Finish by applying a thick layer of mulch around the rose.

Roses in a cottage garden

(Image credit: Peter Chatterton)

What is the best time to prune roses?

The best time to prune roses is at the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Do you cut off dead roses?

You should cut off – or deadhead – roses once the blooms are faded as this will encourage the growth of new flowers.

‘If, however, you have roses, such as rugosas, with lovely hips for autumn, leave the finished blooms on the bush,’ says Clapp.

As editor of Period Living, Britain's best-selling period homes magazine, Melanie loves the charm of older properties. I live in a rural village just outside the Cotswolds in England, so am lucky to be surrounded by beautiful homes and countryside, where I enjoy exploring. Having worked in the industry for almost two decades, Melanie is interested in all aspects of homes and gardens. Her previous roles include working on Real Homes and Homebuilding & Renovating, and she has also contributed to Gardening Etc. She has an English degree and has also studied interior design. Melanie frequently writes for Homes & Gardens about property restoration and gardening.