A Common-sense Guide to Pruning Rose Bushes

If you want to try pruning roses, here’s two pieces of advice from me:

  • Get a tetanus shot before you start. You will prick yourself 100 times with thorns.
  • Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing, or you’ll start a fight. Everyone thinks they know the best way to prune rose bushes.

OK, fine, here may be some do’s and don’ts with pruning. Here’s how I do it. If you disagree, don’t take it personally.

Basically, you need to prune the bush a lot more than you think you have to. I know I’ve done a thorough job when I feel a little pang of guilt about it and worry I’ve pruned too much. I never have. Yet, anyway.

To start, here’s a prime example messy rosebushes I have to cope with each spring:

IMG_20180414_140023 (2)
Wild rosebush on the loose!

If you just cut off last year’s hips and spent blooms, OK, you did something. You can stop there. I have, plenty of times, said the hell with it after that little chore. You can see those bits on the outside and top of the bush. But let’s say I want to do a proper job of it.

Next, cut off anything that’s obviously dead. This is also pretty easy. If the cane looks brown and dry on the outside, prunes off with a crisp snap under the shears, and is brown on the inside, you’ve done it right. There’s more of this than you might expect, if you’ve had a hard winter.

Dead canes at the top, a nice healthy green cane at bottom left.

Take little bites at a time with the pruning shears. It’s easier to handle the debris (hello, thorns) and also ensures you don’t overdo it.

Now things get tricky. You also need to prune the stuff that is mostly dead.


You will know the canes on your rosebush are “mostly dead” when the pruned cane is slightly green on the inside. It may be brown on the outside, but there’s a bit of life left. “Bummer,” you may think when you prune such a cane, “this was OK after all.” Well, it really wasn’t. Miracle Max isn’t going to revive that cane with bellows and a chocolate-covered pill. The cane may have produced some offshoots, but it’s a second-best cane anyway. Gotta go. Prune it down to the first offshoot that’s heading in the direction you want the offshoot to head – outside and up from the bush, not inside or down. See below, where a few red offshoots at the top right had to go because they were headed in the wrong direction.

This rosebush cane is mostly dead, so I pruned it back to where it was 100% healthy.

Then things get tricky.  Some perfectly good canes will need to go because they don’t play well with others. One cane may crisscross another. Look closely and you’ll see both canes have a little dead spot from the friction. One of these has to go, maybe both if the dead spot is extensive.

I prune canes that are also headed for trouble – pointing to the inside of the bush, pointing down, or going off at a weird angle that likely will break later on. I also prune very low canes that run close to the ground, since the dog likely will step on them and get thorns in his paws. This is all very subjective and debatable.

I don’t stop, however, until I feel like I have done a little too much. Here’s a before and after picture, with the finished job on the left:

Pruned bush on the left, two unpruned ones center-right. The upper right bush is a river birch and needs its bushy shape, lucky for it!

One down, 11 to go! And yes, I see all the damn weeds too! No rest until frost!

Author: shoes15

I live in Connecticut, USA with my husband and my dog, in an old house outfitted with a sewing room, a garden, an orchard, and a big liquor cabinet.

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