When and If to Prune Roses


I was recently asked: “When should I prune my rose bushes?”
Now, if you are a gardener that focuses on native plants like me, you might question the need to prune your roses at all! The truth is, it all depends upon whether you are aiming for the tame, well designed look or one that is more pleasing to the local robin, junco or sparrow.

Either way, you want to think about what type of rose you are pruning, why you are pruning it and how to prune it so your rose bush doesn’t look like you gave it a bad haircut, worse yet a nonflowering one. Here I will address when different roses should be pruned (if at all!).

Pruning is often unnecessary if you planted your rose bush in the right micro-climate and location for its size and environmental needs. If the landscape was over planted with shrubs or your rose was planted too close to a walkway for its size, then it may need to be moved, because it is difficult to maintain large shrubs in small areas. Think about sitting next to the NFL player in the average sized airplane seat.

However, if the shrub is in the proper location and still has dead, diseased or straying branches they can be removed in any season. I have a rose bush that interferes with one of my sprinkler heads, so it needs frequent trimming and by the time I notice it, my best made plans are buried under a stack of thorny stems.

Scheduling a pruning is influenced by the type of rose and when it blooms, since some flowers grow on the canes or stems of the prior year. My father was a Midwestern rose guru of the hybrid variety. He would trim his ornamental roses whenever recommended by the horticulturists at the nearby Morton’s Arboretum outside of Chicago, IL. In his honor, I checked out their website which gives specific recommendations for each plant genera, http://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-and-plant-advice/horticulture-care/pruning-deciduous-shrubs, with the following tips on pruning various Rosa:

• Climbers or ramblers will bloom in early summer on old wood, so pruning after flowering is desirable, except for new woody stems which will produce flowers the following year.
• Hybrid bush varieties will flower on the new wood, so pruning back old canes in the spring is recommended.
• Shrub roses can also be pruned in the spring for cutting out old, unwanted or diseased canes, which are the most similar to the wild roses here in Central Oregon

According to Amy Jo Detweiler, our local Deschutes County Extension Horticulturist, she suggests waiting until late April or Early May when there is less chance of frost nipping at its stems. Thinning the canes and all dead wood will allow for ventilation and then cutting back the remaining canes to about 12 to 18 inches until all danger of severe frost has passed.  In Central Oregon, this is around the end of May, at which time they can be cut back even further to 6-8 inches.  If that isn’t enough pruning, then you can continue to prune in the summer to encourage more blooms by cutting off two sets of leaves below each blossom.

While I do not have any ornamental roses, I have several native roses I am nurturing to create wildlife habitat. The topic of pruning had me do a little research on roses and their impact on wildlife. It turns out that native roses are one of eight most desired shrubs by Oregon wildlife according to the book, Naturescaping, by the Oregon Department of Wildlife. Wild roses provide cover, food and nesting habitat components. If they were trimmed in the fall or late summer, then the rose hips would not have time to form, or they would be removed before winter, when wildlife really needs the vitamin C-rich rose hips for survival.

This means the timing for pruning native roses should follow the guidelines for shrub roses and be pruned in the spring. Generally native shrubs, sprout earlier than ornamentals for they are timed with the wet months of winter, so be observant and watch for new growth, late winter or early spring is when I would attempt to schedule my annual, keep the rose off my sprinkler pruning. Worrying about frost is generally not an issue with native plants.

“But Yvonne?” Priscilla might ask, “Don’t we need to worry about the smaller birds that nest in the wild roses, like juncos and sparrows? What if I wait until spring and find a bird’s nest?”

Now that’s the dilemma! When and do I really need to trim my roses? You are damned in the fall and damned in the spring and if you wait until summer, then the shrub is flowering, which is the reason why most people plant the rose!

As with real estate, it all comes down to “location, location, location.” The charming, well trained tea roses will behave in a tight corner of the yard and will not form thickets or attract birds anyway. So what am I jawing about? We can respectfully grow different roses for different reasons and prune them accordingly and I will help you prune them, if need be.

If however, you decide a cute little junco or sparrow might be good company, then celebrate the holidays, by planting a wild rose and hanging up the clippers!

Chalker-Scott, L., & Tinnemore, R. a. (2009). Sustainable Pruning Woody Landscape Plants. In L. Chalker-Scott, Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens (pp. 15-1). Yakima, WA: Publshers of Good Fruti Grower and MasterGardener Magazines.
Detweiler, A. J. (2008, 5). Roses, Planting and Care in Central Oregon. OR: Oregon State University.
http://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-and-plant-advice/horticulture-care/pruning-deciduous-shrubs. (n.d.). Retrieved 12 5, 2014, from Morton Arboretum.