How to prune a rose bush

Mrs. Hart was my next-door neighbor on Long Island. She was what we called “an original owner,” having moved into her brand-new house in a brand-new subdivision in the post-war exuberance of the 1940s. In the ensuing decades, she’d raised a son, outlived a husband, and cultivated magnificent rose bushes. Big, round powder puffs of flowers dotted her front yard in June. She spent most of her time pruning roses, wearing a housedress and a floppy hat to prevent sunstroke.

One time I asked how she kept her roses from going leggy and wild. Mrs. Hart looked up, stopped clipping briefly, and said, “It’s easier to show you than to tell you.”

Photography by John Merkl for Gardenista.

Need To Know

Above: A rose bush–as opposed to a climbing rose, or a tea rose–is a floribunda. A floribunda, which can be trained as a hedge as well as a bush, is a cross between a hybrid tea and the smaller, more compact polyantha roses often referred to as landscape roses.

A key distinguishing feature: a floribunda’s flowers grow in clusters rather than as single blossoms at the end of a long stem.


Step 1: Gather your supplies:

  • Pruners
  • Gloves
  • Alcohol
  • Cotton swabs

Step 2: Clean the blade of your pruners with alcohol on a swab to disinfect them and prevent the spread of disease from one plant to another (roses are especially prone to black spot).


Step 3: Deadheading. As flowers fade, remove them from the bush to encourage new blooms. Grasp the spent flower’s individual stem and clip it at its base, separating it from the plant.

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Step 4: Shaping the bush. Remove deadwood or errant or leggy stems to encourage new, fuller growth. When removing a stem, always make the cut at a juncture where the stem meets a grouping of five leaves.


The Basics: Make a clean cut at a 45-degree angle; this will enable rain water to run off rather than collecting in the open wound.

Wondering which roses will thrive in your climate? See our regional rose guides at A Rose for All Regions: Northeast US Edition, A Rose for All Regions: Texas Edition, and A Rose for All Regions: Northern California Edition.

New to gardening? See our Gardening 101 archives, with tips on such basics as forcing bulbs, sprouting seeds, and drawing a garden plan.

Tips & Techniques

  1. Always use clean, sharp garden tools.
  2. Prior to starting, take into consideration the overall shape of the bush, but always start at the bottom of the plant.
  3. Prune to open up the center of the plant. This will promote more air circulation inside the bush, slowing insect attack, and reducing fungal problems.
  4. Prune stems at a 45 degree angle, just above a growth bud that is facing away from the center of the plant.
  5. When making cuts, do not damage the plant. Cuts should be sharp and precise.
  6. Remove any dead, diseased or winter damaged wood, cutting it back to where it’s healthy. You’ve reached healthy wood when the center of the cane is white.
  7. Remove small twiggy shoots and those that are crisscrossing other growth.
  8. Seal cuts to prevent disease and cane borer problems.
  9. Remove suckers that grow below the graft (bud union).
  10. When you’re finished, clean areas around and under plants to reduce problems with disease and insect pests.
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