How To Prune And Deadhead Roses

And what's the difference between the two?

Woman Pruning Roses

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If you're looking for tidier-looking plants with healthy blooms, learning how to deadhead and prune your roses is important. Home gardeners who grow modern roses, including the relatively new shrub or landscape rose bushes, should consider these techniques essential to the plant's care. Before making any snips to your plant, though, it's important to consider the type of rose, how it blooms, and the time of season. Here's what you need to know to encourage blooms on your roses.

What's the Difference Between Deadheading and Pruning Roses?

Deadheading is done in the first year, after the plant starts flowering. Pruning is done once the plants are established, usually after the second year. The difference between the two is that the annual pruning is a more drastic removal of canes while deadheading removes old rose blossoms any time in the growing season.

What is Pruning?

Pruning maintains the plant’s shape and encourages new growth, thus more flowers. Roses like to be pruned; they need to have their dead canes removed. Typically, this is done when the plant is dormant, about 6 to 8 weeks before the average last frost or when the forsythia blooms. If gardeners forget or were not able to prune and the plant is starting to leaf out, they should prune anyway. In the deep South, roses may be flourishing and blooming in the winter and be “dormant” in the summer’s heat, so the best time to prune would be in the summer. The shrub or landscape rose bushes can be pruned a little later, when the new growth is visible in late spring.

What is Deadheading?

Deadheading—removing spent blossoms—encourages more blooms and results in a more attractive shrub. Some gardeners don’t want to deadhead because they want the resulting fruit, called rosehips, for wildlife or to use in the kitchen. If gardeners want rosehips, they should not deadhead. There is no need to deadhead shrub or landscape roses, which are “self-cleaning.” They also do not produce rosehips.

What You'll Need

  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Thick gloves: Gauntlet gloves—long gloves that protect hands as well as forearms—are ideal
  • Bypass shears, not anvil
  • Loppers to cut thick canes
  • Folding saw
  • Hedge shears, even electric shears, for shrub or landscape roses
  • Long-handled clippers for hard-to-reach climbers

How To Deadhead

Deadheading bush roses or climbers can be done with each spent flower or when the first flush of blooms has past, depending on how much time you have. For bush roses that produce one rose per stem, cut down to five leaflets. The intent is that where you cut, the new growth will be the same width or smaller than the original, but never larger. Thus, you want the new growth to be at least as wide as the original stem to support a good size flower. Also, cut just a quarter inch above where the leaflet is where a bud eye is outward facing. 

For a cluster flower type, do not cut each individual flower. Cut well below the cluster, one-quarter inch above the five leaflets so you have a stem with a good width. Again, cut above an outward facing bud eye. 

For climbers, cut to at least the five-leaflet place but can cut to about 12 or 14 inches from the main cane depending on the length you want for that lateral. For climbers, the bud eye orientation does not matter. Climbers that are climbing vertically may have flowers out of reach which is where the long-handled clippers come in handy. 

Stop deadheading rose bushes with the onset of cold weather to let the plant enter the dormant stage. This is about 6 weeks before the first frost in areas with cold winters and true dormant periods.

Shrub or landscape roses do not need to be deadheaded. 

How To Prune Bush Roses

  1. Identify the dead canes, which are brown or gray (living canes are green) and cut back to the base of the plant.
  2. Remove weak growth or straggly remains, like remains of a flower cluster. Often this will appear as thin branches—thin as a pencil. 
  3. Remove branches that are crossing, such as crossing into the interior of the bush, or literally rubbing up against each other. Remove broken or torn canes.
  4. Cut back canes to the desired height, depending on its location in the landscape and its mature size. When cutting the remaining canes, make a cut about one quarter to one half inch above an outward facing bud eye to encourage the new stems originating from that bud eye to grow outwards. Make cuts at a 45-degree angle away from the bud. 
  5. When done, dispose the branches and foliage and clean/sterilize your pruners by wiping with isopropyl alcohol. 

Note that rose enthusiasts who grow roses for exhibition—such as hybrid teas—may prune their shrubs to as low as 18 to 24 inches resulting in fewer but larger blooms on longer stems. Gardeners who are interested in growing for many, although slightly smaller, flowers do not need to cut that low. 

How To Prune Climbing Roses

  1. Identify the main canes and the lateral canes. The main cane grows from the base of the plant and should never be cut back. The lateral canes grow from the main cane and bears the flowers.
  2. With each main cane, cut the lateral cane to within 12 to 24 inches of the main cane starting at the base of the plant and working upward.
  3. If there is a gap and you need more main canes, you can transform a lateral into a main.
  4. Identify the lateral one that you want to be a main—it must be vigorous and it must have never been cut before. Treat it like a main and tie it to the structure, an arbor or fence, at a horizontal or 45-degree angle. 
  5. Eventually the lateral will grow like a main cane and create new laterals with new flowers.
  6. When done, dispose of the branches and foliage and clean/sterilize your pruners by wiping with isopropyl alcohol. 

How to Prune Shrub Or Landscape Roses

  1. In the spring, when new shoots begin to form on the canes, cut the shrub back to about one third of the desired height. This may be done with shears, even electric shears if you have a lot of shrubs.
  2. Examine the shrub and cut out with pruning shears the dead or damaged canes.
  3. When done, dispose the branches and foliage and clean/sterilize your tools by wiping with isopropyl alcohol. 
  4. Every two or three years, remove about one-third of the old growth to rejuvenate the plants.  

If you want to cut rose flowers for a vase, consider these additional tips

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