Pruning roses

As with all plants, it isn’t strictly necessary to prune roses, but pruning can help achieve sturdier and healthier plants with a better form and flowering. Removing growth which isn’t going to flower very well will allow the plant to put all its energy into maximising the display on the remaining, and new, growth. Different roses require a different pruning approach, so the first task is to identify the type of rose you have. For pruning purposes, there are 4 main groups:

Modern bush roses

The vast majority of these are repeat flowering roses, the result of centuries of breeding. They are compact plants created to fit into bedding designs and maximise their floral display. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the familiar medium size bushes, to standards and patio-container roses.

Shrub roses

This group includes species roses (such as Rosa canina, Rosa glauca or Rosa rugosa) and old garden roses such as Damasks, Chinas and Bourbons. Generally speaking they have longer, upright or arching stems than the modern bush roses and only a single flush of flowers (although this is not the case with all shrub roses).


Ramblers do exactly what their name suggests, they have long stems which scramble through shrubs and into trees to reach the light. They are very vigorous growers and usually only have one flush of flowers borne in clusters.


Generally growing less vigorously than ramblers, climbers are usually modern hybrids and therefore similar in form to the modern bush roses, just with long, climbing stems.

Each group has slightly different pruning requirements, which are outlined below. As with many gardening topics, there are numerous different theories about pruning roses, so you may well receive advice which differs a little from ours. Don’t worry! If you’re not sure, just keep to the basic rules of pruning (ie the tools to use, types of cuts and removal of dead, diseased, damaged, crowded, crossing or weak growth) and leave it at that.

More information on different rose classifications.

Modern bush roses

All modern bush roses require the same basic pruning, to be cut down at some point during their dormant period (from late autumn to early spring). Most people leave it until early spring to reduce the risk of hard frosts damaging the new growth. Remove any stems which are dead, diseased, damaged, crowded, crossing or weak, then cut all the remaining stems down. As a rule of thumb, cluster-flowered bush roses (floribundas) should be cut down to be level with the top of your wellies (about 30cm) and large-flowered bush rose (hybrid teas) should be cut to half way down your wellies (about 20cm).

If you can find a dormant bud (which may just appear as a bump on the side of the stem) then your pruning cut should be just above it, slanted away from the bud so that water runs away from it. Choose a bud which is pointing outwards, in the direction you want it to grow. The general aim is usually to get a ‘goblet’ shaped bush with an open centre, to allow good air flow around the rose (which will reduce the risk of fungal infections such as rust and mildew). If you can’t find a bud just cut down to the right height and then trim it back a bit, if necessary, in spring when you can see the buds more clearly.

Most people choose to prune their modern bush roses in late winter, so that they can see the buds more clearly. If you wish to do the same, you should consider whether your rose would benefit from a trim in early winter as well – if roses are in exposed locations the wind can sway them so much in the winter that their roots are disturbed and damaged. If you are worried about this ‘wind rock’ trim the roses down to about waist height in late autumn/early winter, then do the final pruning in late winter.

To obtain fewer but larger flowers you should prune the stems harder. Prune them more lightly for earlier but smaller blooms.

Having said all this, there is a move now towards much lighter pruning of modern bush roses. The idea is to remove all the dead wood, cut the stems down to the right height (top of the wellies or half way down) and leave it at that. No need to remove any weak, twiggy growth and no worrying about cutting to a bud or using a slanted cut. Many experts now recommend this as a quicker and easier process which may produce better results. Many authors also advocate the simplest method of all – taking a hedge trimmer and using that to cut all the stems down to the right height. While no disadvantages of this approach have been proved, so far, you should consider whether leaving dead/diseased growth on the rose and jagged cuts at the tops of stems can really be a good thing for the plant’s long term health. The best thing is to experiment yourself and see what your roses seem to like best!

There are a few differentiations depending on the type of modern bush rose you have:

  • If you have just planted a large-flowered or cluster-flowered bush rose you should prune it down to around 10cm above ground level, then prune as normal after that.
  • If your modern bush rose is a standard you can prune it in the same way, cutting back the stems and side shoots in the ‘head’ of the standard. They should be shortened to the same extent as you would for a cluster-flowered or large-flowered bush rose which wasn’t a standard, using the graft point at the top of the stem as ‘ground level’. Don’t cut into the main, clear stem (this is the rootstock and not the same as the scion rose at the top which produces the flowers), but do remove any side shoots growing from it. If one side of the head becomes weaker, prune this side harder to encourage more growth.
  • Weeping standard roses should be left unpruned for the first few years, except to remove dead, diseased and damaged stems and cut back weak shoots to encourage them to grow more strongly. Once they are established they should be pruned according to the type of rose the head is formed from (eg a ground cover, rambler or climbing rose).
  • Miniature roses just require minimal pruning of their twiggy growth, although harder pruning can be employed if their growth become congested. However, they should be hard pruned on planting, as for other modern bush roses, to within 8cm of ground level.
  • Patio and polyantha roses should be treated as cluster-flowered bush roses.

Shrub roses

As a general rule, these roses should be allowed to form a permanent framework and not be cut back annually to the same extent as modern bush roses, as they flower on old wood (stems which grew the previous year or before). Specific roses may have different requirements, so it’s best to check what is required for the rose you have. However, below are some general guidelines.

Species roses (except Rosa rugosa and its hybrids)

Can be pruned in their dormant season (late autumn until early spring). After planting the rose should be pruned lightly each year to shorten any overly long stems. Once the plant is established, pruning should aim to remove any dead, diseased and damaged growth, and to cut back any weak growth, encouraging it to grow more vigorously and to balance up the shape of the shrub.

If they require renovation (see below) this can be done in early spring, with all but the most vigorous stems being pruned down to ground level.

Alba, Damask, Moss and Provence old garden roses

Once flowering

Prune as soon after flowering as possible. For new plants, lightly trim the tips. Once established, cut the main stems back by about 1/3 and the side shoots by about 2/3, and remove any dead, diseased and damaged growth.

If you can afford to spend a little more time on them, you can carry out some additional pruning to optimise your floral display. Cut back the stems and side shoots to the height of the flower buds in early summer (when the buds are showing a bit of colour) and repeat this in late summer. In the winter, trim the main stems and side shoots as normal, but cut the outer stems down further than the inner ones to create a ‘dome’ effect.

Renovation (see below) can be done after flowering or in the spring, removing all but the most vigorous stems and cutting those back by 1/3.

Repeat flowering

A few of these roses, particularly some moss roses, do have a smaller, second flush of flowers later in the summer. These roses shouldn’t be pruned until after the second flush or the flowers will be lost. Other than that, treat them as for once flowering roses.

Bourbon, China and Portland old garden roses

Prune these in the same way as the Alba/Damask/Moss/Provence roses, but do so in the dormant season rather than the summer, as they are repeat flowering.

Gallica old garden roses

Prune lightly for a couple of years after planting, trimming back overlong or removing crowded stems. Once they are established all dead, diseased and damaged growth should be removed in early spring, followed by cutting back the side shoots to a main stem (or close to one) after flowering (mid summer). At the same time you can remove one or two main stems down to, or near to, ground level – this can be done every one to three years, more frequently for more vigorous plants.

If they are grown as hedges, Gallica roses can be lightly sheared in winter to keep them within the required area, although formal shaping will not work with these plants.

To renovate (see below), remove all but the most vigorous stems in early spring.

Hybrid musk modern shrub roses

No pruning is required until the plant is established. At this point, prune in the dormant season (late autumn to early spring) to remove dead, diseased and damaged growth, and between one and three stems only (depending on the vigour of the plant). Cut back the remaining main stems by 1/3 and side shoots by 1/2.

Rugosa modern shrub roses

Rosa rugosa, and its many hybrids, requires no formative pruning. Once established the plant should be pruned in the dormant season (late autumn to early spring) to shorten overly long stems and removing old stems from time to time. To renovate (see below), remove up to one third of the stems to ground level (starting with the older ones) each year, though if the new growth is not vigorous you may wish to extend this pruning to every other year.

Ground cover modern shrub roses

No pruning is required until the plant is established, when dead, diseased and damaged stems should be removed. Stems which are reaching beyond their boundary should be shortened and side shoots in the centre of the growth should be shortened slightly to open up the centre. Pruning should be done in early spring if the rose is repeat flowering, or in summer after flowering if the rose only flowers once.

There are some exceptions to these pruning recommendations:

  • If you want to retain the hips for winter interest you can wait and prune them in late winter or early spring instead (Rosa rugosa and Rosa ‘Geranium’, for example, have particularly good hips).
  • China roses – keep pruning to a minimum, just removing dead, diseased, damaged and very old stems.
  • Hybrid perpetuals – as these can grow very tall you may need to cut the main stems back by 1/2 (instead of 1/3) to keep it neat and tidy.


On planting, ramblers should be cut down to about 40cm to encourage vigorous growth. The shoots should be fanned out and tied in to encourage appropriate growth.

Once established, given the size and vigour of some ramblers, particularly those growing over trees or buildings, you may choose not to prune yours, except to remove wayward stems. This is absolutely fine; ramblers naturally have a slightly ‘messy’ form so you’re usually on a ‘hiding to nothing’ if you try to prune them to obtain neat, formal growth.

If you do want to prune your rambler, this should be done in late autumn. Remove long sections of stem, down to ground level if you wish, to retain the main framework of the plant. Tease stems out as you remove them, rather than just pulling them out and potentially damaging the rest of the plant.

Ramblers grown for ground cover should be lightly pruned in summer after flowering, cutting back upright stems and any which are growing outside their boundaries. More flowers can be obtained by spreading out stems and pegging them onto the soil surface so they will root.

Some ramblers have slightly different requirements:

  • Rosa banksiae should only be pruned very lightly.
  • For very vigorous cultivars, such as Rosa ‘Dorothy Perkins’, you can remove all flowered stems to ground level each year, tying in new growth to replace them. Feed it well in the spring.


Climbers can be treated in the same way as rambling roses (particularly those growing up through trees or over buildings which are hard to access), however you may want to prune them more rigorously in order to be able to tie in the stems and neaten up the appearance of the plant. Climbers should be pruned in late autumn when they’ve finished flowering (which also gives you an opportunity to tie in retained side shoots to prevent them being blown about in the winter weather).

Newly planted climbers should not be pruned heavily for the first few years as many of them have been hybridised from modern bush roses and hard pruning may encourage them to revert to the bush form, rather than climbing (these generally have the word ‘climbing’ in their cultivar name, such as Rosa ‘Climbing Iceberg’). The tips can be cut off stems (back to the first healthy bud) to encourage lateral growth.

Once established regular pruning will depend on the vigour of the plant. If the climber is vigorous take the flowered stems back to within about 15cm of the main stems. With slower growing varieties you may wish to remove less growth and perhaps just do a minimal trim if the plant still looks neat and tidy.

When the rose has reached the boundaries of its allotted space, older stems can be removed to encourage new growth (generally stems will only be productive for around three years), cutting down to younger growth or removing them completely. Shoots which have grown too long for their space can be shortened at any time.

Growth should be tied into the rose’s supports year round, particularly when it is young and more pliable.

These are some exceptions to the pruning rules for climbers:

  • Very vigorous climbers (such as Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’) can be pruned in late winter/early spring instead of late autumn as it’s easier to see the framework with bare stems.
  • Rosa ‘Mermaid’ should only be pruned very lightly.

General pruning techniques for roses

All roses appreciate deadheading (unless you want to retain the hips for winter interest) and this should be carried out for all roses throughout their flowering season. Deadheading will encourage the rose to put its energies into further flower production, rather than producing seeds.

Stems, or parts of stems, which have died naturally (you’ll see a clear differentiation between where the dead wood finishes and the live wood begins) should be cut back to just above the point where the dead wood joins the live wood, so you leave a small section of dead wood to provide a ‘barrier’ to protect the live wood. Where the die back is gradual, and there’s no distinct line between the dead, dying and live wood, you should cut back down into the live wood until you reach wood where the centre of the stem is completely white, with no brown (dying) centre to the pith.

If your rose grows a stem where there is no sign of flower buds forming (this is called a ‘blind‘ shoot), cut it down to a bud lower down the stem and this should encourage it to grow and form flower buds, albeit that they will flower later than the other stems.

Most roses, particularly modern bush roses and climbers, are grafted onto a different rootstock. Stems (called ‘suckers‘) can grow from this rootstock and should be removed as soon as they appear, otherwise they are likely to grow more vigorously than the scion and will weaken and eventually kill off the scion cultivar.

Renovation of roses

Renovation pruning can perform miracles on neglected, overgrown roses. It’s best done in the dormant period (winter to early spring), even for those roses which are usually pruned after flowering. This may lead to a loss of flowers the following year, but it will benefit the plant in the long run.

For modern bush and shrub roses cut out all dead stems and stumps at the base, remove any suckers from the rootstock and trim all the other stems to no more than 4cm above ground level (don’t worry if you can’t find a bud to cut down to at this low level, the plant should produce new ones below the cut). Roses which were very weak may not survive renovation, however it is unlikely they would have lived much longer anyway. If you want to be more cautious with your renovation, remove the dead stems, stumps and suckers, then shorten all older stems back to young, new growth. You can do this over a period of 2 years if you’re particularly concerned about not losing the plant.

For climbing roses which have become bare lower down, one in three of the stems should be pruned down to 30cm above ground level to encourage fresh growth from the base. If it has outgrown its space then all the main stems should be cut back until they only reach as far as 2/3 into their allotted area, then all the side shoots trimmed back to 2/3 of their length.

Old and weak stems on ramblers can be cut down to their base, or dramatically shortened back to healthy side shoots. Any dead stems should be removed to their base. If the rambler is so tangled that this task is impossible, you can cut the whole thing down to the ground in late summer; although it is likely to be a couple of years before you have a good flower display again, the plants often perform better after this drastic treatment.

In spring feed renovated roses well and mulch them with a good, organic mulch, such as well rotted farmyard manure.