The when, where and how of planting and pruning perfect roses

Jun 19, 2023
Rose pruning is all about rejuvenating the plant and – essentially – keeping it young. Source: Getty

Winter is rose season in the gardening calendar! They may not be in flower now, but this is the time when you plant new bushes and prune older ones. Both procedures take a little know-how, but neither are too complicated, and as roses are such tough, long-living plants, it’s well worth getting it right.

Roses are bought these days in much the same way they’ve always been — as bare-root plants that are dug, packaged and sold in winter. They might look a little unimpressive right now – like a cluster of bare thorny sticks – but they will go on to produce the most beautiful flowers in just a couple of months’ time. You can also find roses available as potted plants in nurseries throughout the year, but bare-root plants are generally cheaper and offer you a much wider selection of varieties.

How to plant roses

  1. Pick the spot: In terms of garden position, roses need full sun – at least six hours a day – otherwise they won’t thrive.
  2. Prep the soil: To give new plants the best headstart, it’s important to prepare the soil two to four weeks before planting (or even earlier if you can). Fork cow manure and compost through the planting area, to enrich the soil with lots of organic goodies.
  3. Prep the plant: On planting day, unwrap the roses, shake off the medium surrounding their roots, and place them in a bucket of water straight away, so they don’t dry out.
  4. Dig a hole: This needs to be wide enough to accommodate the full spread of the roots, and deep enough that the bud union (the knobbly swelling on the stem) will end up a couple of centimetres above soil level. As a rough guide, the minimum sized hole should be about 30cm wide and 20cm deep. (Tip: If you haven’t already prepared your soil, mix some cow manure and/or compost through the excavated soil at this stage.)
  5. Form a mound: Using some of the excavated soil, form a mound in the base of the hole. Take a rose from the bucket, disentangle its roots and spread them out over the mound, holding the plant upright with your other hand. Adjust the mound as needed, so that the bud union will sit just above the finished soil level.
  6. Fill and water: Backfill the hole about halfway with soil, then water the plant. When the puddle has drained away, fill the rest of the hole with sol, firming the soil down with your hands to ensure there are no air pockets. Water again with a shower spray.

Note: There’s no need to add fertiliser in winter, as the plant is dormant. Wait until you see signs of leaf growth in spring, at which stage you can sprinkle on some rose fertiliser and top it with a layer of mulch.

How to prune roses

Roses have the very handy habit of bearing their flowers on their new growth. So when they’re cut back in winter, they respond by pushing out vigorous new stems in spring, which quickly go on to produce flower buds. Rose pruning is all about rejuvenating the plant and – essentially – keeping it young. Here are the basic rules for pruning established bush and shrub roses.

  1. First, cut the whole bush back by about a third to a half, making each cut just above a nice plump growth bud, which is facing outwards. Always use clean, sharp secateurs so you don’t tear the bark.
  2. Remove any dead canes, cutting them right down at the base of the plant. Also remove sick or spindly growth, and any criss-crossing canes, to open up the centre of the bush.
  3. Bin all the rose prunings, in case they’re carrying any pests. You can also spray the bare plants with a winter rose spray, such as lime sulphur or pest oil, to clean up any fungal spores or dormant bugs that might be hanging around.
Pruning red rose bush
Always use clean, sharp secateurs so you don’t tear the bark. Source: Getty

Timing: In frost-free areas, pruning is usually done from mid to late winter. However, if you live in a frost-prone area, delay it until all danger of frosts has passed, so that you won’t risk the new growth getting burnt off.

Climbing roses that only bloom in spring – which includes the popular banksia rose and many old-fashioned varieties – should be left alone in winter. Instead, only prune them back after their flowering has finished in late spring, trimming back to create a manageable framework. Plants that are two to three years old may need no pruning at all.

yellow multiflora rose
A glorious example of the yellow multiflora climbing rose. Source: Getty

Repeat-flowering climbing roses on the other hand, can be pruned back in winter by trimming back the side shoots, which produce the flowers (known as laterals), along with any dead canes. If your climbing rose has become altogether too large and you want to reduce its spread, then use the winter months to trim it back to the dimensions you want.

If you want to know how to pick the right rose for your garden, read Roger Fox’s guide here

Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up