Anne O'Neill fell in love with roses in her native Ireland and for the past five years has been the curator of the Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Anne thanks Jason Brown of Conard-Pyle/Star Roses, Tom Carruth of Weeks Roses, Pat Henry of Roses Unlimited, and Gene Waring of the Manhattan Rose Society for their input with this article.
Roses grow gloriously in the wild and have been thriving in older gardens for centuries, often with absolutely no care. So why do gardeners, especially organic gardeners, believe roses require so much attention and regular spraying with toxic chemicals that they are not worth growing?
If you love the beauty and fine fragrance of roses, you'll be glad to know that when you give them what they need--plentiful sunshine and air circulation, along with well-drained, fertile soil--and follow the steps I've outlined for you on the following pages, you'll discover how easy and rewarding they are to grow.
Success with roses begins with planting varieties suited to your conditions. To start you off, I've listed some of the roses that perform well in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where I work, as well as recommendations from experts around the country.
When shopping for roses, you'll see that they are sold either with bare roots (with the soil washed off) or growing in a pot. Bareroot plants are dormant--they have no leaves or flowers. Plant them in early spring, before they start growing. Look for plants labeled "#1" grade--that indicates the highest quality--with at least three thick canes.
Roses in pots are actively growing and can be planted anytime in spring or fall. Whether you choose container or bareroot plants, be sure they have strong, green canes with white pith. The roots should be plentiful and almost as long as the topgrowth.
Roses are often sold "grafted"--that is, the top part with the flowers you want is attached to a stem and roots from a different variety. Grafted roses flower sooner than "own-root" roses, and they can be more vigorous; however, I prefer roses that are grown on their own roots. They come through harsh winters better than grafted plants because they are able to sprout from below the soil surface if they die back. Own-root roses are typically smaller at time of purchase and take longer to get to full size.
Rose Care Calendar
Since March weather is quite different in Atlanta than it is in Brooklyn (or Denver or San Diego), I've organized this calendar by season rather than by month.
Late Winter into Spring
Prune existing roses and plant new roses in this season. Pruning is essential because it allows sunlight to reach the center and air to circulate around the canes. Steady airflow prevents fungal diseases.
Pruning: Look for swelling leaf buds on the rose canes; don't wait for the leaves to show. Start by cutting out branches that are dead, damaged, or diseased. The next step depends on the type of rose:
Once-flowering roses, which bloom abundantly in spring or early summer and then are finished for the year, need only winter damage removed.
Repeat-flowering shrubs bloom heavily in spring and continue blooming more modestly throughout the summer and fall. Cut out winter damage and cut the rose back by one-third to half of its height. Make these cuts about one-quarter inch above an outward-facing bud. Prune out thin, crossing, and inward-facing canes.
Climbing roses. Climbers bloom the way repeat-flowering shrubs do but grow canes 6 to 20 feet in length. For climbers, which are typically trained onto arbors or other structures, prune back laterals (stems that grow from existing canes, rather than emerging directly from the base of the plant) to between three and five buds. Don't cut the growth that emerges from the base--you want to encourage those canes to grow. With newly planted climbers, cut out only dead, diseased, or damaged wood for the first three years. Don't shorten any canes until the fourth season.
Rambling roses. Ramblers are similar to climbers but have a more sprawling, relaxed habit. They bloom once a year, and get big--10 to 30 feet big. Retain the strongest old and new growth.
Secure ramblers and climbers by tying the long, sturdy canes to supporting structures.
Planting: Roses need at least 6 hours of sun each day (with a little early-afternoon shade in really hot climates). Choose a spot with well-drained, fertile soil and consistent air circulation.
Plant bareroot and dormant container roses when you see the forsythia bloom in early spring. By then, the ground has warmed enough for planting.
Dig down 3 feet and replace the soil with amended, organically rich soil. This is especially important if you're planting a new rose in a place where an old rose has grown. Use soil from a rose-free part of your garden (or bring it in), and move the soil you take out to another rose-free area.
I take my grandfather's advice and put very well aged manure about 2 feet below soil level and cover it with about 4 inches of amended soil. The idea is to draw the roots down deeper into the soil in search of nutrients.
Soak bareroot roses in water for 3 hours or so before planting and keep them shaded for a week after. Wait until the danger of frost has passed before planting container roses that have leafed out.
Watering: At planting, water your roses deeply, and do not let the soil completely dry out until they become established, which means until autumn.
Mulch: Spread 1 or 2 inches of shredded leaves or bark chips around your new roses.
Feeding: For existing roses, cover the soil with an inch of compost, mushroom compost (my favorite), or aged manure.
Once-flowering roses. Most bloom on the previous season's growth. Remove old, unproductive canes and spindly new canes after flowering. Do not deadhead (remove faded flowers); it prevents the formation of the attractive fruits known as hips.
Repeat-flowering shrubs. Deadhead all repeat-flowering roses. On plants with flowers that bloom in clusters, cut the entire cluster where the stem joins the cane.
Climbing and rambling roses. Deadhead repeat-flowering climbers. There's no need to deadhead ramblers. Continue training ramblers and climbers onto their supports.
Watering: Water established roses deeply at soil level (don't allow the leaves to get wet) once a week when it hasn't rained; twice a week for roses planted in spring.
Weeding: Remove weeds as necessary, and mulch around the base of your roses to discourage weeds from sprouting.
Feeding: Once-flowering roses. Don't feed them now. The compost or manure you spread each spring is enough for the year.
Repeat-flowering roses. Give these a boost with a dose of liquid fish or kelp. Just don't overdo it. Excessive fertilizer can lead to soft, weak growth that attracts insects.
Pests and diseases: If you start with varieties suited to your conditions and plant them in full sun, with fertile soil, steady air circulation, and plenty of water, you've taken the most important steps in preventing problems.
If your roses do suffer an attack, you can rely on the natural balance of your organic garden to minimize the damage. For example, encourage birds to visit your garden in winter. They eat bugs overwintering in soil and on plants. Here are specific treatments for common problems you can use when they are at their worst.
Cane borers. Borers burrow into canes, causing them to die back. Prune dead and dying canes back into green wood.
Japanese beetles. Eliminate the beetles during the grub stage using milky disease spores (see the August/September 2006 issue for information). Handpick adult beetles early in the morning.
Aphids. Wash aphids off the leaves and stems with a strong spray of water, or spray with organic insecticidal soap.
Mites. Spray canes with horticultural oil.
Fungal infections. Spray compost tea on both sides of the foliage. Always remove any diseased plant material immediately. Spray with Cornell Mix Fungal Spray:
1 tablespoon baking soda A few drops horticultural oil or Ivory soap
1 gallon water
Combine the ingredients in a gallon jug and fill a spray bottle with the mix. Spray susceptible plants every five days.
Transplanting: Transplant roses in your garden in mid to late autumn. Cut them back to about half their size and move to a properly prepared site (see section on planting roses in spring) quickly, with as little root injury as possible. Water well.
Pruning and training: Continue deadheading repeat bloomers until about six weeks before winter dormancy begins in your region. Tie new growth on climbers and ramblers to supporting structures.
Fertilizing: Stop fertilizing at least six weeks before the average first-frost date in your area.
Winter Pruning: Cut back excessively long canes so that they don't whip around in the wind and rock the roots free of the soil.
Cleanup: Dispose of the fallen rosebush leaves, but not in your compost pile-- they may harbor diseases.
Cold protection: In freezing climates, after a couple of frosts, mound around the crown of your rose plants with a few inches of soil or lightly shredded bark. Shield vulnerable plants with burlap or protective rose cones.
Rest and dream: Congratulations! Time to relax and start dreaming about next year's show!
A Rose by Any Other Name
Reading labels when you're buying a rosebush can seem like learning a new language. But understanding the terminology helps you find the varieties that suit your purposes and conditions.
Floribunda: Bushes that range from 2 to 6 feet tall and equally wide. Most are cold-hardy. They bloom continuously in clusters of medium-size flowers. Many color options. For the flower border or cut flowers. Fragrance varies.
Polyantha: Smaller in flowers and in overall plant size, they are a scaled-down version of floribunda roses.
Hybrid tea: Also called large-flowered roses. Classic florist roses with large blossoms (one per stem) that become pointed toward the center, they range from 3 to 6 feet tall. Some are deliciously fragrant; many aren't. Best for cut flowers, as the plant itself isn't much to look at.
Landscape: A new type bred to be easy to care for and to look great in the landscape. Highly disease- and pest-resistant. Low-growing, with short flower stems that are not suited to bouquets. Continuous bloom spring to fall. Best choice for beginners.
Modern: All varieties bred after 1867, including hybrid teas, floribundas, and polyanthas. Come in both soft and bold colors, and fragrance varies greatly. Most repeat bloom.
Old garden: All varieties that existed before 1867, including China, damask, tea, and noisette types. They tend to have softer colors than modern roses and are often very fragrant. Most bloom once in spring. The types vary in cold-hardiness.
Species: Wild roses.
Reliable Roses for Every Climate
Three extraordinary roses that grow well virtually anywhere in the United States
'Home Run'. A modern shrub that's extremely disease-resistant. It has a striking single dark red flower, with a yellow center.
'New Dawn'. A light pink, fragrant climber that can romp over large structures. Almost indestructible--a great rose!
Rosa glauca. A species rose that grows up to 10 feet tall, with arching red canes, blue-green leaves, pretty pink flowers, and hips as an autumn bonus.
These beautiful, no-fuss roses thrive in all but the hottest and coldest areas of the country
'CécileBrunner'. A polyantha rose, available in shrub or climber form. It is disease-resistant, easy to grow, and beautiful, with sprays of shell-pink, fragrant "buttonhole" blooms.
'Julia Child'. A floribunda rose that's phenomenal from Texas to California to New York. It has buttery yellow blooms with a spicy fragrance on a well-behaved, disease-resistant 3 1/2-foot shrub.
'Madame Hardy'. A damask rose, white with a green eye, and perfume to die for.
Rosa primula. A species rose that makes a lovely garden plant, about 4 to 7 feet, with fragrant, light green leaflets. It is a very early blooming shrub with yellow, very fragrant blossoms.
'The McCartney Rose'. A vigorous, pink, fragrant hybrid tea that was tested under low-care conditions.
For Regions with Hot and Humid Summers
'Reve d'Or'. A lovely yellow-flowered, fragrant, generously blooming climber, with elegant, long canes. It's a noisette rose, one of a class of roses that originated in South Carolina.
'Faith Whittlesey'. A white tea type rose that never seems to go out of bloom. 'Tipu's Flame' is a lovely red-blend shrub. Both bred in India, these tropical roses are truly tolerant of hot, humid weather.
'Mutabilis'. A China rose that is consistently covered in multicolored single blooms. An "EarthKind" certified rose tested by Texas A&M University, along with 14 others just as beautiful and trouble-free. Most are excellent throughout the rest of the country, as well.
For Regions with Hot and Dry Summers
All the roses recommended for hot and humid regions, above, also do well where it's hot and dry. In addition:
'Squatter's Dream'. Yellow blooms on a very healthy shrub. Bred for Australia's climate.
'Mermaid'. A single, fragrant yellow climber, with vigorous, healthy growth.
'Duchesse de Brabant'. A light pink tea rose that also has the EarthKind designation.
For Regions with Bitter Winters
'Quietness', 'Prairie Sunrise', and 'Prairie Sunset'. All were bred by Griffith Buck, Ph.D., of Iowa State University.
'Dortmund'. A tidy red-flowered climber with a white eye. Tested in cold weather and low-maintenance conditions.
'William Baffin'. A virtually indestructible climber, with deep pink blooms. Part of the Morden series, bred in Canada.