The basics of winter rose pruning | Garden notes

Barbara Faurot
Posted 2/8/23

“I love to prune my roses … you can forget everything else while you’re doing it.” — Julie Andrews, actress, author, and rosarian

It’s time to prune our roses. …

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The basics of winter rose pruning | Garden notes

Abundant new wood and new flowers can result from moderate winter rose pruning, removing 1/3 to 2/3 of the plant. Late February to early March is a good time to prune modern roses.
Abundant new wood and new flowers can result from moderate winter rose pruning, removing 1/3 to 2/3 of the plant. Late February to early March is a good time to prune modern roses.
Lutsenko Larissa photo

“I love to prune my roses … you can forget everything else while you’re doing it.” — Julie Andrews, actress, author, and rosarian

It’s time to prune our roses. The Seattle Rose Society recommends pruning between Feb. 22 and mid-March, when forsythia is blooming in your neighborhood. 

The plants are still dormant, but the likelihood of a hard freeze has passed. Winter pruning accomplishes several tasks: improving structure, encouraging new flowering wood, increasing sunlight and air circulation, and reducing fungal pathogens. 

Within the rose family (Rosaceae), the genus Rosa includes more than 100 species and thousands of cultivars. Species roses, with 22 native to North America, are those that occur naturally in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Modern roses are considered to be those bred and cultivated after 1867, the year the first hybrid tea rose was developed. Hybrids and cultivars developed prior to 1867 are known as old garden, heritage, or heirloom roses.

It’s important to note that old garden roses typically bloom on the prior year’s growth, so they should not be pruned in winter. After flowering, they can be pruned very lightly to remove any old, unproductive canes.

The basic pruning steps for modern roses are similar to other cane growers like mahonia, kerria, nandina, or forsythia. As with most plants, prune lightly during the first year or two while the root system is still developing.

Start with clean, sharp pruning tools. Remove dead wood, diseased or spindly canes, rubbing or crossing canes, and rootstock suckers if you have a grafted rose. Prune die-back to bright green cambium just beneath the bark, with clean white pith inside.

Old leaves remaining after the winter can harbor disease, so they should be removed. If rose hips remain, they can also be removed when they begin to look spent. In all cases, pruned materials – canes, leaves, or hips – may contain disease-carrying spores, so they should be discarded and not added to compost.

Since most modern roses produce flowers on new growth, our main objective is to select the strong, healthy canes that will support this year’s growth. These canes can be shortened to an outward-facing bud above a leaf scar (the intersection of the cane and a leaflet). Cut at a 45-degree angle about 1/4 inch above an emerging bud so that water will flow away from the bud and growth will be forced outward, opening up the plant to sunlight and air circulation. For spreading roses, you can also prune to some inward-facing buds to encourage a more upright habit. 

If you’re not sure what type of rose you have, prune it lightly, removing up to 1/3 of each cane, and visit the Master Gardener Plant Clinic online or in person for help with identification: 

Hybrid tea roses are a cross between hybrid perpetual roses and old garden tea roses. They have a large bloom on a single upright stem and a deep root system. Floribunda roses, smaller than hybrid tea roses but larger than shrub roses, have small flowers grouped in clusters. Grandiflora roses, usually larger than the floribunda, are a cross between a hybrid tea and floribunda. They have large, showy blooms like hybrid teas, but grow in clusters like the floribunda. 

Well-established hybrid tea, floribunda, and grandiflora roses can be pruned moderately to fairly hard in spring. Too little pruning can result in a weak, spindly plant. As a rough guideline, prune strong plants moderately – removing at least 1/3 and up to 2/3 of the plant, and prune weaker plants severely to renovate them – leaving only three to four canes about 8 inches to 12 inches long. 

Shrub roses, including groundcover roses, have a more shallow root system, a spreading habit, smaller flowers, and dense foliage. They tend to be more disease-resistant and need less maintenance. Start by reaching inside to remove any old or crowded canes and open up light and air circulation. Reduce some of the remaining canes to 6 inches to 18 inches tall, depending on the plant’s size. Cut to a healthy bud, facing in the desired direction for new growth. For established groundcover roses, prune off about 6 inches before new buds begin to form. 

Climbing roses are either old garden varieties that bloom once a season, or modern varieties that re-bloom like their parent hybrid tea, floribunda, or grandiflora roses. They bloom on horizontal canes and can be fastened to a fence, trellis, or wall. 

For the first few years, limit pruning to removal of dead or weak canes. Once the plant is established on its support, shorten side canes to the edge of the structure to stimulate lateral bud growth. In subsequent years, remove the oldest canes and prune lateral growth to a healthy bud.

David Austin roses, sometimes called English shrub roses, combine the qualities and fragrance of old garden roses with the re-blooming and color range of modern roses. Follow the same basic pruning guidelines depending on their form (shrub or climbing). 

Native wild roses like Nootka rose, bald-hip rose, or pea-fruit rose can be pruned if needed like any cane grower. After removing dead or damaged branches, cut a few of the older canes to the ground and remove some of the new shoots.

Looking ahead to spring and summer, stimulate re-blooming by deadheading faded blooms. For healthy plants, prune canes to a leaf node with five to seven leaflets. In fall, discontinue pruning as the plant prepares to go dormant, and leave the rose hips for winter color and wildlife. Next winter, the pruning cycle can begin again, when the forsythia blooms.

The nonprofit Seattle Rose Society ( offers useful articles, resources, and access to consulting rosarians. 

The first of six educational talks in the 25th Anniversary Master Gardener Foundation’s Virtual Yard & Garden Lecture Series is from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Feb. 11. Jane Billinghurst, best-selling author, will cover “Getting the Most Out of Your Next Forest Adventure.” Information on all speakers, topics, and tickets is available at 

(Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.)