Garden · Roses

Quick and Dirty Rose Pruning

The first plants I learned to grow were roses. Our first house was already beautifully landscaped with 20 or so rose bushes when we bought it. I can honestly say that in the two years we lived there I probably smelled every single bloom on every single bush. That was before we had kids so I had lots of time to wander around the yard smelling roses!

I had no idea how to take care of them so I bought some kind of beginner’s rose book. Pruning was especially confusing. I called the Master Gardener Helpline with a long list of questions and was directed to our two local rose societies that hold monthly meetings. I showed up at my first meeting 10 years ago and I still attend every month that I can. January is the time of year that we prune roses in our climate (southern NV) so it is a frequent topic of conversation and usually the main topic of the meeting every January.

This year I’ve noticed a new tone to the conversation. The Consulting Rosarians (the pros) of the group are taking a much more laid back approach to pruning or at least in the way they teach it to the newcomers. Pruning can be very stressful for new rose growers. Even though I’ve been to dozens of classes and demonstrations on the topic I still take a laid back approach because it’s easy to drive yourself crazy with pruning.  It’s really hard, if not impossible, to accidentally kill a rose with pruning.  There’s no reason to stress about getting it just right.  Here are the simple points I keep in mind…

The 3 Ds

Cut off dead, dying or diseased canes. This can be done any time of year.

Crossing Canes

Cut back canes that are crossing into the center of the bush. This opens up the air flow.  Cut back the cane to the bud union.

Outward Growth is Good

Always prune back to an outward facing bud. The new growth coming from the bud will grow outward. A bud facing into the bush will produce growth to the inside of the bush which can restrict air flow.


Cut slightly above the bud and slanted away from the bud at an angle. In our climate, roses usually don’t go dormant as they do in other climates so we often have buds coming out when it’s time to prune. It’s okay to cut off buds. More will grow. It’s also okay if you don’t have buds when you prune.

Chop a little or a lot?

Heavy pruning will result in fewer but larger blooms.
Light pruning will result in more but smaller blooms.
Miniature rose bushes should not be pruned much. Very light pruning is better for miniatures.

Leave the Leaves

In our climate, some people pick off the leaves to force dormancy.  It’s a pain and time is short so I don’t bother.

Just Skip It

It is completely okay to not prune at all! I was shocked to hear this the first time.  Many of my Consulting Rosarian gardening buddies have hundreds of roses.  One of them recently topped 1000 roses!  Do you think they get every one of them pruned every year?  No way.  It’s okay to skip the big yearly pruning task. So, if it’s okay to skip then it’s definitely okay to not panic about getting it perfectly correct. For those of us that don’t grow roses for show, the biggest reason to prune is to control the shape and growth of the bush.

Right now I only have two rose bushes (with plans to plant 6 more next month).  We bought our house 1 1/2 years ago and it came with one rose.  That rose has had such a crazy ride that it deserves it’s own post.  My other rose is a miniature called Bee’s Knees.  I won it and one other miniature in a raffle four years ago when we lived in California.  I kept them in containers on our apartment balcony.

Storyteller went through a phase back then.  She would take scraps of her veggies and put them in the pots to feed the plants.  I didn’t realize that she was also watering them with bubble solution.  Bee’s Knees survived her acts of kindness with the bubbles but the other rose and several other plants weren’t that tough.

Bee’s Knees has been in the same pot for four years and this year it will get a bigger home.  It has never really gone dormant for me but each year is better than the year before.  Last year I didn’t get around to pruning it at all and the blooms and growth were just amazing!  I pruned it back a bit this year and I’ll put it into a new pot in a few weeks.  Here are some pictures of my half-hearted attempt at pruning it this year.  I was trying to squeeze in this task and finally found about three minutes to take care of it the other day.


Rose bush in January, Bee's Knees
Rose bush in January, Bee’s Knees

Isn’t that a pretty sad looking rose bush?  Well, it’s January and roses aren’t too pretty this time of year even when they don’t go dormant.  They still lose all of their leaves but they also start putting out more leaves which gives it a weird look.  It doesn’t know if it’s going to sleep for the winter or waking up for the spring!

There are three steps that I take to help my roses go dormant.  I stop fertilizing in October or even earlier.  I don’t dead head the later fall blooms.  Dead heading initiates more blooms.  I slowly cut back watering in the fall.  But even with those steps, my roses still have a hard time going dormant.


Bee's Knees
Bee’s Knees

I cut off all the blooms and save the best ones to bring into the house.  Bring a bucket or a mason jar with water out to the garden to drop the roses into as you cut them off.  They’ll keep better until you get them in a vase.


Bee's Knees
Bee’s Knees, January bloom

The bush may be ugly in January but the blooms are beautiful!


New growth buds on rose bush
New growth buds on rose bush

By the time I prune in January, I have new buds all over the bushes.  Always prune back to an outward facing bud to encourage outward growth.  It’s okay to cut off all those buds.  More will grow.


After pruning is kind of done
After pruning is kind of done

I really don’t want to post this picture.  It’s not a great example of a pruned rose bush but it fits perfectly with the theme of this post.  It’s a great example of a “busy mom in the garden”.  The pruning only took a few short minutes but my girls were letting me know (in a not so subtle way) that my time in the garden was up.  So, I snapped a few pictures of the “finished” bush and called it good. Now, this is a miniature so I want to prune it very lightly but I should probably go back and tidy up some of the small stems coming off the canes particularly on the right side.  But it’s okay if I don’t get back to it.  The bush will be fine and it will put out great blooms this year for us to enjoy.  When I’m pruning, I just remind myself…the 3Ds, crossing canes, outside facing buds, angled cuts.  That’s it.  Keep it simple.

You can certainly drive yourself nuts with learning how to prune roses. It’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the steps and details that the pros may take with their meticulously manicured rose gardens…that is when they get around to pruning several hundred bushes!  It’s much simpler for the rest of us.


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