By Linda Bergstrom, Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden Volunteer – 04/14/2020

This week, our online resource was written by Klehm volunteer and rose expert, Linda Bergstrom, and focuses specifically on how to properly prune your roses this season. Linda’s vast knowledge of rose care comes from 13 years of training and experience as a member of the special rose care volunteer team at Red Butte Botanic Garden in Salt Lake City, an institution that has over 150 different varieties of roses. Read on for Linda’s invaluable advice!

First of all, the plant doesn’t care if it’s pruned or not, and it’s really really hard to kill a plant totally by pruning. Don’t be afraid to try it.  The purpose of pruning is to make the plant look more attractive to you. It’s not really for the health of the plant. The plant will just keep growing as it is, and they are surprisingly resilient. Japanese beetles might do them in, but you won’t.

Have a good sharp cutting tool so you can make nice clean cuts. Depending on the plant, you might need just hand pruners, but an older or larger plant will require loppers or even a saw. The blades of your tools should be clean because it is possible to pass disease producing microorganisms from plant to plant with tools. This goes for all tools. But a clean off with water after you are done using a tool each time will do it. Don’t get obsessive about this especially now. No need to waste things like alcohol or sanitizer on garden tools under ordinary circumstances.

With roses, of course you will need sturdy gloves. You might possibly need special gauntlet gloves designed to use with roses. They are not cheap though. If you are working with miniature roses, ordinary garden gloves will do.

So………Take a deep breath, center yourself and then just look at the plant so you really see it in all its detail.

Start by just pruning off branches that are obviously dead, brown or black even. An old plant will probably have a lot of dead wood. This may require a saw. You don’t have to get rid of all the dead parts, but they serve no purpose anymore.

Try to prune just above a node that is alive with a leaf or green nubbin if you can, but that is not always possible. Don’t worry if you have to just cut where you can cut. You can cut all the way to the ground if you have to. As long as there are some healthy roots, new canes will begin to sprout. You might not get a lot of flowers the first year you cut back that much, but the bush will keep growing and producing over time.

Some people say you MUST prune at an angle. I don’t obsess over this. Sometimes you just have to cut straight. Whatever is left after pruning that is above a node will probably turn brown and die. If you are obsessive, later you can cut back that little brown nubbin too.

Then look for branches that physically cross over another one or rub against each other. Prune off either one depending on which is stronger or weaker or which way would make the plant just look better.

You have to decide how YOU want the plant to look. It’s good enough just to get rid of the dead part and the crossed branches. You can stop here if you want.

In the spring you might want to prune the whole plane to make it overall shorter. Prune it all round to make it a nice round compact plant. This is what I prefer, but maybe you don’t.

Just look for things that you don’t think look that good. For me, it’s things like single tall straight stems that are obviously much higher than the rest of the plant. Similarly I don’t like what I call “candelabras” or the “Liberace look.” These are like the single straight stems but with several branches at the top. It’s those big straight canes without flowers that I don’t like. But you may think they are fine. It’s up to you.

Just cut things away that you don’t like. Evaluate after each major cut. Stop when you have achieved what you want. Or before, if you are timid. You can always go back another day and do more. 

If you have not been working with the roses regularly, the first time you have a go at it, you might think you did too much. Most likely that’s not true. Just stop and let the plant grow and see what happens. You’ll probably be surprised at how well the bush grows out. 

Throughout the summer I deadhead the flowers all season. I also keep doing mini pruning the whole summer. For example if one of those long stems just shoots right up in July, I let it flower and then deadhead and prune when the flower is spent. I am also not fond of the Morticia Addams look…the long straight stems but without flowers. If you only deadhead the flower, that’s what you will achieve. I try to do this continued pruning by making the cut deep inside the plant as a whole so that you don’t see the end of the cut cane…remember it will just turn brown and new growth will sprout out from somewhere else. This is how you get the plant to look overall rounded and bushy over time.

The exception to continuous deadheading and pruning is if you are dealing with an old  rose variety that produces nice red hips. Assuming you want the red rose hips, with those bushes you just let them be. Just cut off any obviously dead wood. These roses also often have a large amount of thorns. It might be the better part of wisdom to just leave them be as they are.

If you are dealing with a very old variety that only blooms once a season, deadheading & pruning won’t encourage new flowers, but I don’t think the dead flowers are attractive. It’s your plant, though. Do as you think best.

Modern miniature roses are another thing. These you need to work at weekly, even daily, to keep them looking good. Deadhead them constantly and you’ll get flowers constantly. Prune the tiny branches with abandon. You can’t hardly kill them for trying. You can use regular scissors with miniatures. I find the long, sharp, straight points of scissors work better than the heavy pruner blades. You can even use scissors designed for use with bonsai plants.

Stop pruning in September though. Pruning encourages new growth, and that you don’t really want as winter comes on. You can, of course, cut off a single stem or two, but leave most of your shaping work until the next spring.