As the air and soil temperatures cool, now’s the ideal time to treat your beloved roses to a well deserved trim. Not only will this promote fresh new growth and an improved show of flowers in the warmer months later in the year, it will also help to keep your plants in the best of health generally by removing any dead or diseased wood and creating an open and airy form.
Gather your tools
For most of the pruning you’ll need a pair of good quality secateurs with clean and sharp blades. These are ideal for snipping through thinner stems and suckers and deadheading spent blooms as well as removing diseased leaves and rose hips. A squirt of CRC or similar lubricant before you begin will keep them working smoothly throughout the operation.
You’ll also need a pair of sturdy loppers for removing thicker stems and tougher woody growth – again ensure the blades are clean and sharp and well-oiled.
You may also need a thin, sharp saw to remove the thickest branches. One with a slightly curved blade is best as this will enable you to make cuts at awkward angles in dense growth.
Thorn protection is a must, so consider investing in a pair of good quality leather gardening gloves – preferably long ones with some forearm protection too.
If pruning taller-growing roses such as climbers it might also pay to wear safety goggles and if it’s a real thicket you’re attacking, cover up completely with tough fabric overalls or similar.
Finally, have a sturdy plastic tub for gathering the cuttings – avoid using black plastic gardening bags as sharp thorns will easily slice through.
Making a start
Begin by removing any obviously unwanted stem growth that may compromise the health of the plant. This includes any dead or diseased stems and any suckers rising from the base or the trunk, which will be depleting the plant of energy. In each case prune hard back to the healthy parent branch or trunk ensuring cuts are clean and not ‘ragged’ (hence the need for sharp tools).
Next look to any twiggy or weak looking stems and snip these back to the sturdier parent stem – again this diverts the plant’s energy towards the stronger growth resulting in an overall healthier plant.
Look at the direction of inner stems and remove any that are criss-crossing or growing inwards. The object is to thin out the inner growth, creating an open and airy plant, allowing air to circulate and sunlight to reach the centre.
If pruning a very established rose it may be necessary to cut away some of the older woody stems – do this with a sharp saw, again making clean cuts back to the trunk.
From left: Use secateurs to cut back any wayward side shoots to the healthy parent branch; Snipping at a 45-degree angle, approximately 5mm above an outward facing bud will ensure new growth sprouts from this bud; Prune any energy-depleting suckers from the base.
Once the maintenance pruning has been done it’s time for the aesthetics, ensuring the rose is going to look exactly how you want it come the growing season.
As with many garden plants, there’s no hard and fast rule as to how the plant should look – it’s really down to you and the job it’s performing in your garden. If you’re growing a large rose bush for a bit of privacy then allow the uppermost stems to reach the desired height before cutting, or if you’re growing a scented rose near a garden bench you may want to keep the plant lower-growing so you might enjoy the fragrant blooms while you’re having your morning cuppa. Similarly a walkway lined with rose bushes might dictate that they are kept at waist height or slightly higher so the blooms can be best appreciated while meandering down the path.
Standard roses look at their best with an attractive, correctly proportioned, ‘head’ of growth on a single upright trunk so ensure any unruly wayward stems are snipped back – in fact, along with deadheading, this can be done throughout the year as an ongoing maintenance routine. Heights of standards vary and so the higher and thicker the trunk the larger the head. Poorly proportioned standard roses look less than their best – either ‘top heavy’ smaller specimens or ‘meanheaded’ larger standards – so bear this in mind when shaping and allow for the extra growth they’ll put on in spring. As a general rule of thumb though, the upper stems of most standard roses can be clipped back to approximately 15–20cm.
From left: Snip rose hips from ramblers once they have been enjoyed; Remove any twiggy or thin dead wood with secateurs; Sharp secateurs will easily cut through thinner stems.
Climbing roses are in their element when trained against a garden structure or fence but may need pruning to keep them at the correct height (fence height or just above) as well as to remove any wayward stems growing perpendicular to the fence or structure – alternatively these stems could be successfully tied back and retrained if still supple. Climbers are generally best pruned after flowering, but, as with most roses, a bit of extra winter pruning may be necessary for a tidy up.
As their name suggests, ramblers can be just that, fairly relaxed and casual in habit so may need a bit of a trim in winter. Unlike most other roses, they only flower once a year (though quite prolifically) with flowers developing into attractive red and orange rose hips later in the season – so don’t be tempted to deadhead them! A part of their pruning regime may be to remove nonconforming stems from the base – especially if growing against a fence or wall as an espalier.
How much is too much?
Roses are pretty robust when it comes to pruning and will respond with a burst of fresh new growth come spring. Don’t worry if you think you’ve taken too much off – as with a bad haircut, it will always grow back. Most roses will thank you for being cut back by about 50 per cent in winter, but in some cases a really extreme trim may kick-start a previously lethargic bloomer into a new burst of vigour.
Where should I cut to?
If feeling a little more conservative and you’re not removing stems or branches completely back to the parent branch or trunk then prune back to a few buds above the previous year’s growth. Cut back cleanly to approximately 5mm above an outward-facing bud – this will ensure new growth sprouts from this bud helping to produce a open and airy plant. Make the cut downward sloping (approximately 45 degrees) to keep the bud dry and healthy and clear of any rising sap.
To finish off
Immediately after pruning spray the plant with an appropriate lime sulphur following the manufacturer’s instructions. This will help to protect against pests, such as scales and mites, as well as common fungal diseases.
Exceptions that prove the rule
Roses that produce one single mass of blooms in spring should be pruned immediately after flowering – these include some of the old-fashioned roses, many of the weeping standards and banksias.