Basic Spring Pruning

by:  Logan Shillinglaw

Temperatures are rising and Spring is upon us. April is pruning time as well as the best time to add new roses or replace dead or under performing roses. If you havenít ordered your roses from a mail order nursery, such as Edmunds or Jackson & Perkins, then head to your local nursery or garden center. Before we talk about how to choose the best roses, Iíll share some ideas on how to best "wake up" your roses and prepare them for another cycle of beauty.

There are countless ideas and a number of books about pruning, but I like to keep it simple and look at three basic areas Ė the why, the what and the how to. There is no need to make it complicated and if you understand these items then pruning will start you on the road to strong, healthy and productive roses.

The Why

Winter has given your roses a chance to go dormant and be non-productive. Roses need this break from growing. If you have winterized adequately and the winter hasnít been too harsh, your plant is now ready to come back to life. Pruning is the process that signals the plant to start rejuvenating by removing old and damaged wood and promoting healing and new growth. If done properly and with a plan, pruning can encourage new basal growth Ė the emergence of new canes from the bud union.

You want to prune your rose plant to eliminate weak canes that can sap energy from the rest of the plant. Pruning lets you shape the plant so that you can get the growth habit you want, a habit that will encourage a balanced plant with tall, healthy canes.

Pruning is the way in which you can "open up" the middle of the plant to allow a good flow of air. Why is this important? Good airflow minimizes your risk of fungal disease Ė black spot, mildew, etc. Ė and makes care much easier. Clearing the middle also provides room for new growth that will sustain the plant throughout the growing season.

The What

What do you need in order to easily and effectively prune your roses? Itís really quite simple.

Quality pair of pruning shears (Felco or Fiskars are among the best)

Loppers Ė Long handle pruning shears designed for thick canes and branches

Small wire brush

Puncture-proof gloves (Goat skin preferred)


A good pair of pruning shears makes all the difference in the world. This is one area where you donít want to cut corners. Clean and smooth cuts help ensure the health of the rose. The blade should be sharp because you want to cut the cane, not crush it.

Donít try to "muscle" a thick cane with pruning shears. A good pair of lopping shears makes the job easy and does not damage the plant. If you try to cut heavy wood with pruning shears you can permanently damage both the plant and the shears. Plus, you have to work too hard if you do not have the right tool.

Why a wire brush? To brush away old dead bark from around the bud union. By doing this in the Spring, you are helping encourage basal breaks and new growth by making it easy for the rose to send out those new shoots.

Good gloves are a must! The last thing you want to do is stick yourself with those pesky thorns. Not only are they annoying, but they can lead to infections and illness. Take one extra precaution and make certain you are current on your tetanus shot. You want to remain healthy so you can enjoy the fruits of your labor. (Editorís note: A Tetanus shot is good for 10 years.)


The How.

I always do better if someone tells me basic rules, so here are mine.

Basic Rule #1


This may seem to be the easiest, but when I started getting serious about having good roses, this was the hardest. I was always hesitant to cut away on a plant that was living or showing signs of new growth. I pruned sparingly and then wondered why my stems and blooms were not what they should be. My good friend, Marsha Tucker, put it simply and clearly, "If the stem isnít at least larger than a pencil, then get rid of it." That makes perfect sense because a cane is not going to produce a stem larger than itself.

Cut out all the spindly and weak growth. This will encourage the rose to produce new growth on strong healthy canes.

Rule #2


When you prune, you want the center of the cane to show white, healthy wood. You want green bark and a white center. If you donít get that in your first cut, cut some more and keep cutting until you get a white core. The stem may be green on the outside but if the core is not a white pith, then you will be wasting time. That cane will cause you more headache than it is worth. Remember it is okay to cut back to the bud union. Joan and I have been on the trophy table with a St. Patrick that was nothing but bud union when I finished pruning.

Rule #3


This is really quite simple. Find a dormant bud eye (slightly swollen spot where a leaf cluster is or was connected) on a strong cane. Choose a bud eye that faces away from the center of the plant. Make a 45o angle cut about ľ" above the eye. The cut should angle down and away from the eye. When you are done cutting to good wood, put a drop of Elmers glue on the cut to seal it. This will help protect from insects that might enjoy boring into that fresh wood.

What makes this a proper cut? Why cut to an outside eye and why cut away? I wondered that myself until I read a great article by Dr. Tommy Cairns. It really makes sense.

Cut to an outside eye to keep from having all your canes growing together in the middle of the rose bush. You want the center of the plant to be open to promote good air circulation and new growth. This also gives the bush a more attractive rounded shape. An easy way to remember this is to clear out the center so you could rest a mixing bowl in the middle.

Cut at an angle away from the bud eye because the natural sap of the plant will rise to seal the cut and by cutting away from the eye, the sap will not interfere with the natural growth of the eye.

See, thereís really nothing mystical about it at all.


Take a moment to review the wonderful picture  from the Arena Rose Company catalog. It is a great source of information on the anatomy of a rose bush and what should be pruned and what should stay. Thanks to Amy Arena for letting me use this picture.  (Click the Thumbnail below to see the picture in full size.)

Rule #4


What? I thought this was all pretty straight forward stuff? It really is. All I mean by this is to expect Mother Nature to keep us on our toes. We all know how temperatures can change in a momentís notice. So be prepared.

The mulch that you pulled away from the plant so that you could prune should be kept near the plant. Watch the weather and if cold weather or frost is expected, go back out and lightly cover any new and tender growth. If the forecast is for several days of sub-freezing weather, then mound the mulch around plant to keep it from freezing. When warm days return, simply pull the mulch back and let the plant enjoy the warmth of the sun.

One last reminder Ė your plants want water. A typical spring will provide the rain necessary, but donít take that for granted. Donít let the soil get dry. I am a terrible rainfall guesser so I invested a couple of dollars in a rain gauge. Now I can easily see if my roses are getting the two inches of rain per week they need.

This may sound like a lot to do but it really doesnít take much time Ė especially if you have a small and easy-to-manage garden. Believe me, you will be rewarded handsomely for the time you spend now doing it the right way!