Early March (even with our warmer winter) is the time of year when rose bushes are just breaking dormancy. You can now prune them with confidence.
In fact, if they have already leafed a little, it makes it easier to determine the most robust growth bud.
One main purpose for pruning your rose bushes is to keep them the size and shape you want, and to open up their interior to sunlight, air circulation and water which keeps them healthy. Also, roses flower only on new growth so, to keep the flowers coming, they must be cut back in the spring.
First, remove all the dead wood, plus crossing or rubbing branches. With big, old rose shrubs, reach down deep into the plant and take out two or three large branches at the base. This will encourage the bush to send out fresh shoots up from the bottom. Then shape the rest of the shrub by taking out smaller selective branches to different heights.
Always cut the branch one fifth of an inch above an outward-facing bud growth, at a 45 degree angle, with the cut edge facing away from the viewer. This cut makes the rose bud grow out toward the edges of the bush, not toward the center where all gets congested.
Shearing or making the exterior of your rose bush all the same length is an unhealthy way to prune because it does not let light in, and growth is only on the tips of the branch. This promotes a weak plant with fewer leaves exposed for photosynthesis.
Use pruners with a ratchet mechanism to reduce wear and tear on your hand and a small pruning saw for larger branches. Big long-handled loppers are not good for close work inside the bush as they are awkward; use them for chopping up cut branches for bagging.
Climbing roses need to be identified before pruning to determine if they bloom on new growth, old growth, or on both old and new. Best to Google these instructions for your particular plant.
If you don't know the name of your climbing rose, prune to the size you want (roses always grow back!); you could leave one or two old stems uncut as an experiment. Then determine what happens with the rose's flowers this year and note it for next year.
Rules for general pruning other bushes are that if you don't want to cut off flower buds (such as hydrangeas or azaleas), figure out if your shrub blooms on last year's growth or on new growth put out this year. As a rule of thumb, if the bush has insignificant or no noticeable blooms, prune before the new spring growth begins (i.e., boxwood, ligustrum, cherry laurel, privet).
Usually if a bush blooms early in the spring, it is blooming on buds formed on last year's wood or growth. If it blooms in July or later, usually this means it is blooming on new growth grown this year. If you don't know which type your bush is, the safest rule of thumb is to prune the bush no later than four weeks after it blooms.
Nancy Burns is a certified Master Gardener, Belle Haven Garden Club President for the past six years, co-author of two award-winning gardening books, member of the Landscape Designers' Group and the Landscape Design Council as well as being completely fascinated with plants, gardening and their surrounding landscape design.