Ah, roses. Perhaps the most popular group of flowering plants, and yet a source of frustration for so many gardeners. Nothing makes a garden look the way roses do, and it’s a look that so many covet. Yet many people find them hard to grow, or have only limited success, so we are going to take a closer look and see what is going wrong, and give you tips and ideas that will mean your roses will be the best you have ever grown, and you will do it easily. Sounds too good to be true? Not at all.
Roses grow best in cool but not cold climates, and places that have plenty of spring and summer rain, without periods of drought and heat. If that doesn’t sound like you, then you need to pay more attention to the exact varieties that you grow. In zone 4 you will often need winter protection – which is always a bit ‘hit or miss’ – so look for varieties that are extra-hardy, and won’t need protection. Lots of modern roses of the ‘landscape rose’ type are super-resistant to cold, and with those, success is much more likely. If you grow a cool-climate rose in a place with a hot, dry summer, you may get terrific spring and early summer blooming, but plants will stop blooming over the summer. They may come back in fall for another round of blooms. Maybe just get used to that and realize it isn’t your fault – enjoy them at the good times, and have something else to bloom at the height of summer. There are some roses, though, that grow best in hotter places. Lady Banks’ Climbing Rose, for example, is more suited to hot, drier zones than just about any other rose around – every garden in hot zones should have one.
Sun and Soil
Full sun is vital for roses to do really well. There are a few that will still bloom a little in partial shade, but most really need some. So forget entirely trying to grow them in shady spots, and only plant in places with sun for at least 8 hours, and preferably dawn to dusk. There, you have already succeeded in getting much better roses.
As for soil, roses like heavy soils – if you garden on clay you can expect lots of success with them. The ground shouldn’t be always wet – that ‘well-drained soil’ stuff again – but here is the secret to getting your wet clay to drain better, and grow fabulous roses for you.
Add lots or rich organic material – and I do mean lots. Use at least on half a bushel per bush, and a whole bushel is even better (a bushel is roughly two standard, 5-gallon buckets). Don’t use low-grade materials like peatmoss, but rich stuff like garden compost, city compost (if your city has it), or well-rotted farm manures – cow, sheep or horse. If you are really stuck, shredded, rotted leaves is OK too. These coarse, rich materials do more than feed your bushes. They also open up the clay, letting some water drain out and air come in, making your roses super-happy.
Even if you have regular garden soil, use at least that half-bushel of organic material per plant, and a full bushel in sandy soil. Sandy soil is the least suitable for good rose growing, but it can be done, with lots of organic material and annual mulch.
When preparing the planting soil, always dig over a wide area, not just enough room for the pot. Dig a distance at least 3 times the diameter of the pot, and just a bit deeper than it. Mix the organic material throughout the whole area.
Plant Them the Right Way
How you plant your new rose bush will make a big difference to your rose-growing success. Once you have prepared the area by digging it as deeply as you can, removing any weed roots, and adding all that organic material, let it settle for a day or two, if you can, and water it thoroughly the night before planting. Dig a hole the depth of the pot, but twice as wide, and slide the plant out of the pot.
Carefully remove the surface soil from the root ball until you can see the point where all the branches are sprouting from. Most roses today are still grafted, so there is a single, thick root, with a cluster of branches sprouting from one side, at the top. Shake off any loose soil and you are ready to go.
Put the plant in the hole and then place a cane or thin piece of wood over the top of the hole, to show the final soil level. Now add soil around the root ball, firming it down as you go, so that the graft point is just above the final soil surface. This is very helpful for pruning, and protects that area from disease.
Gradually fill the hole about two-thirds full and firm it down. Now fill the hole to the top with water. Once the water has drained away, replace the rest of the soil. Mulch over the surface, avoiding the stems, and then water gently, preferably with a gentle spray so that the branches don’t have any soil left on them.
That’s it, planted perfectly for a life of great blooming.
Roses are hungry feeders – you would be too if you had to create all those roses – and just planting and forgetting is a recipe for a mediocre display of roses. All that rich organic material you just dug in when you planted is a great start, and it needs to be replaced regularly with mulch.
Late fall in most zones is the best time for mulching your roses, but in colder areas spring is better, as mulch will slowdown the thawing of the ground, and so make your plants sprout later, where they will miss out on those cool spring days they love so much. Put 2 to 4 inches of material over the whole root zone of the bush, but don’t pile it around the stem or branches – keep them clean and open.
As well, use a granular or liquid rose fertilizer. Follow the directions on the package – they all vary a lot, but they all mostly work well. Slow-release fertilizers are more expensive, but they only need one application each spring, so they save a lot of work. Liquid fertilizers are best for new plants, and essential for plants in tubs and pots, but granular is best and less expensive for established roses. Don’t treat fertilizer as a substitute for that organic material – it’s a supplement and if you want to choose just one, go for the organic material.
Finally, water regularly, especially in pots, of course, but also in the ground. Dry earth is a signal to the rose to stop blooming, so make sure it doesn’t get that signal.
Dead-heading and Pruning
Dead heading is simply the removal of flowers once the petals have fallen. Some modern roses don’t need it, but most benefit enormously from it. Some gardeners simply take hold of the dead flower and twist it off, but better is to use pruners and cut back to just above the first full-sized leaf. Doing this prevents seed-heads (‘hips’) forming and the bush puts its energy into new buds instead. Not only do your bushes always look great, you will have tons more flowers over the season.
Spring pruning is important for all kinds of roses, except climbing roses, which are usually pruned in summer, after their first blooming. Some landscape roses need little attention, but even they benefit from some pruning.
The simplest way to prune is to wait until you see a bit of new growth – swollen buds or tiny green leaves. Then you can see exactly where the growth is – and isn’t. This is so much easier for beginners than trying to identify live wood and dormant buds – although with experience you will come to find that easy, and can prune earlier if you want.
Remove everything that is dead is the first step.
Now remove thin, weak twigs, and, with older bushes, one of two of the oldest branches completely, right to the base, or to where a strong, younger stem has grown out.
Since you left the graft union visible, you will easily see any branches coming from below it. You don’t want those, so dig down if necessary and cut them off flush with the root.
Now cut back each branch to the first fat, strong shoot growing anywhere in the bottom half of the stem. Don’t try to save every green shoot – the strongest ones will give you the most flowers. Try to choose an outward-facing bud, but leaving the strong ones is more important, even if it happens to face the middle.
Get Ready for Your Best Roses Ever
That’s it – do all these things and you will grow roses like you never thought you could. As for pests or diseases, choose varieties that are resistant to the main rose diseases – most of the newer ones are. Spraying the foliage with water regularly is one of the easiest ways to discourage most pests, and healthy plants can handle minor pests better.