Working Around the Thorns


Of those who grow roses, who hasn’t been stuck once or twice (at least) by the thorns?

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

We’d hazard a guess that a vast majority of you, our faithful readers, are nodding along.  But we’d hazard another guess that that same group believes gorgeous roses are worth the potential sore green thumb.  For the beginning gardener, knowing why, when, and how to prune roses isn’t completely intuitive; you must take off much more than you might think, earlier than you might think.  This year’s mild and somewhat cool spring weather brought the roses out in full bloom.  If that inspired you to purchase a rose plant for your own home, read on for a quick primer on how to hopefully get those same gorgeous results next year and the year after and on!

Knockouts! (Photo courtesy of and

Knockouts! (Photo courtesy of and

So first and foremost, start with the right rose. There are hybrid tea roses, floribunda, bushy shrub roses, groundcover roses (spreading habit close to the ground), climbers, miniatures, and tree roses.  One of the easiest roses to start with is one from the Knock Out family (a new hybrid class of shrub roses).  They are super easy to grow, bloom throughout the season, and have vibrant colors with great disease resistance.  Colors and more detailed info can be found here.  Generally, roses require a bit more care than other shrubs and perennials so a Knock Out can be a good “intro rose” to get you hooked 🙂

Pruned and unpruned roses -- great visual of the "urn" shape that creates great air flow. (Photo courtesy of

Pruned and unpruned roses — great visual of the “urn” shape that creates desirable air flow. (Photo courtesy of

Why Prune?  Keep in mind four major goals: removing dead, diseased or damaged canes, shaping the plant to keep it from becoming a tangled mess, encouraging new flowering growth, and increasing air flow.  Most of these goals are self-explanatory (get rid of disease, make it look pretty, get more flowers), but the fourth goal, increasing air flow, is often an over-looked, yet crucial, objective.  Roses are quite susceptible to disease and insect damage, so keeping a good distance between leaves and canes is important in preventing this.  It’s easy to aim for an urn shape when pruning — good outer growth combined with an open-air center for better air flow and light penetration.

Forsythia blooming with a rose ready to prune in bottom right corner. (Photo courtesy of

Forsythia blooming with a rose already pruned in bottom right corner.  Rose pruning often coincides with the first forsythia bloom. (Photo courtesy of

When to Prune?  Not now!  You’ll have to wait ’til springtime to prune your roses but we wanted to write this post now since many roses have just finished their bloom cycle and lots of folks get antsy thinking now’s the time to cut off spent blooms.  Minor deadheading is of course a good idea, but major pruning of canes should wait until early spring (late March to mid-April).  Just keep a good eye on your rose in the spring and when the leaf buds swell, prune it then and the energy spent on growth will be spent in the right places.

Now for the nitty gritty: How to prune.

1. Use clean, sharp tools.  Ragged cane ends are a wide-open (please excuse the pun) invitation to disease and borer insects so be sure you’re making clean cuts.  You may even want to put a bit of Elmer’s glue on the ends of the canes after cutting if you’ve had problems with borers before.

2. Remove: dead/dying wood (anything brown, black, shriveled, etc.), weak canes (any canes thinner in diameter than a pencil), crossed canes (when canes rub against each other it can create open areas that encourage disease) and suckers (any small canes that are growing up from a root rather than the central cane stalk should be cut at the junction of sucker and root — you will probably have to remove some soil to see this junction.  Don’t cut above ground as you will just encourage 2 more suckers to grow in the first one’s place).

3. Cut at a 45 degree angle.  Make the cut just above an outward-facing bud, slanting away from the bud.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

After these general tips, pruning becomes more specialized based on the variety, so just give us a call or comment below and we’ll get back to you with tips for your specific rose.  Good luck and remember, there is no rose without a thorn, so get a good pair of gloves and get out there!

A collage of our favorite roses here at Van Putte and from Chris's home rose garden!

A collage of our favorite roses here at Van Putte and from Chris’s home rose garden!

(Like we said above, this year’s weather got a lot of folks hooked on roses, so lots of people are talking.  Read more from our friends at Gardening Know How (@gardenknowhow on Twitter) on pruning climbers here:)

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