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Tips on Growing Roses

Tip#1: Preparing Good Rose Soil

Now is the time to begin thinking about the soil in your rose garden -- either renovating old soil in an existing garden or preparing for a new garden. (for more information regarding when and what to do at what particular time of the year, visit my calendar page).

The four main elements of good rose soil are inorganic materials, organic materials, water and air. The composition is best described as a "loam." By definition, a loam is about 50% pore space, of which half is water and half is air. The remainder of the loam is about 44 - 46% inorganic material and 4 - 6% organic material. The inorganic material is a 3-1-1 ratio (or 60%-20%-20%) of sand, sediment or silt, and clay respectively. The organic material is composed of humus, materials which have naturally decomposed.

Most of us know we do not live in a perfect world--with perfect soil. We must create it. Here are some pitfalls to watch for when building a quality rose soil:

  • Use caution when incorporating sand into heavy clay soils. Over time, this sand will settle to form a "hard pan" below the soil’s surface much as if you were to put a concrete pad under the soil. This will trap water and prevent good drainage.
  • Use caution when adding organic materials to improve existing soil or create a new loam. Too much organic material will drive soil pH into the acid range, and make insoluble precipitates of many of the nutrients needed for the roses. In acidic soils, limestone may be needed to raise soil pH.
  • Organic matter must first consume nitrogen before it can decompose. When adding undecomposed organic materials, don’t forget to add some extra nitrogen into the mix. Depending on the material used, this could be anywhere from 1/4 pound to 1 1/2 pounds of nitrogen per 100 pounds of organic material added.
  • Use caution when using peat moss to the mix. The material is very slow to decompose and can drive soil pH into something akin to a Louisiana bog if used in excess.
  • When you have completed creating your soil blend, check the drainage. To do that, dig a foot-deep (30 cm) hole and fill it with water. If the water drains out in about 15 minutes, the drainage is great. If it takes longer, you need to improve the soil drainage further. If shorter, you may need to add more organic material to help retain it.
  • In tight clay soils, consider "double digging" the bed. This is accomplished by digging out the soil to a depth of 12 in. (30cm) and placing it off to the side. Then a second 12 in. of soil is dug out and placed to a separate side. The bottom of the dug out area is improved with organic materials and/or gravel. Then the top layer of soil is placed in the bottom of the dug area, and the second layer of soil is placed on the top of that -- essentially flipping the first two feet of soil. As each layer is reinstalled, be sure to include soil loosening agents and organic matter.

Tip#2: Planting Bare-Root Roses

Sometimes you just can’t find that "perfect rose" at your local nursery; you’ll have to mail-order it. And often that mail-order rose will come to you as bare-root. Knowing how to properly plant your new bare-root rose will improve your chances for success.

Step 1: Inspect the rose immediately. Open the shipping container as soon as possible after it is received. Check for broken canes and roots, and trim off all damaged parts with sharp, sterilized pruning shears. Doing this immediately is important to reduce the likelihood of rot and disease – specifically root and crown galls.

Step 2: Soak the roots overnight in a bucket of water. If you want, you can add a weak solution of rooting activator which contains synthetic Vitamin B1. This procedure rehydrates the roots. [Hint: If you have added supplements to your soaking water, save the water for use later in the planting process.]

Step 3: Prepare the hole into which the rose is to be planted. As a rule of thumb, dig the hole about 1½ times as deep and 1½ times as wide as the root system is long. Mound a small pile of soil in the center of the hole as a support for the rose’s root crown.

If you have properly prepared your soil, no additional materials need to be added to the hole. However, if your rose bed is new or your soil is low in nutrient value, you may want to add a small amount of ground phosphate rock or bone meal to the bottom of the hole.

Step 4: Plant the rose according to your hardiness zone. In all cases, spread the roots down and over the top of the mounded soil in the hole’s bottom. Ensure equal distribution of the roots around the mound. Remember: Your placement of those roots will determine how they will grow in the future. Never wrap roots around the rose.

The depth to which you plant the rose depends on your hardiness zone:

For Zones 9 - 10, plant grafted roses so their bud unions are the width of three fingers above the soil line, but do not expose the root crown. For own-root roses, plant so the top of the root crown is at the soil line. [Hint: To determine the soil line, lay a stake or broom handle across the top of the open hole.]

[Note: For those of you new to this technique, recent studies have shown planting bud unions above the soil line (where possible) reduces pest bacterial infestation and keeps the bud union dry to reduce graft decay.]

For Zones 7 - 8, plant grafted roses so their bud unions are at the soil line. Do the same for own-root roses.

For Zones 5 - 6, plant grafted roses so their bud unions are the width of three fingers below the soil line. For own-root roses, plant the root crown at the soil line or slightly below.

For Zone 4 and colder, plant grafted roses the width of your hand below the soil line. Own root roses (those that will survive these winter temperatures) can be planted at the soil line.

Step 5: While holding onto the rose, fill the hole with garden soil. Use a bucket or garden hose to water in the soil around the roots. This is important to remove any major air pockets left by the filling process, and ensure good root/soil contact. Don’t let the rose settle deeper into the hole than you intend for your hardiness zone. [Hint: As a technique, secure the rose with plastic tape or twine to the stake laid across the hole. This helps prevent it from sinking into the hole as you water-in the soil.]

After watering-in, apply a solution of rooting stimulator to the root zone. (If you added synthetic Vitamin B-1 to your root soaking solution in Step 2, use it here.) Do not apply the rooting stimulator until after you have watered-in the rose. Doing otherwise could burn the roots.

Step 6: Mound garden soil up around the exposed canes, but leave the top two bud eyes exposed. This will protect the rose from any severe late frosts until the roots develop. (It also signals the rose to "get started doin’ its thing." ) After the bud eyes swell and the first few new leaflets appear, remove the soil from around the canes and form a watering well around the base of the rose.

Step 7: Sit back and enjoy all your hard work.

BTW, if you are not sure which hardiness zone you are in, and you live in the United States, Alaska or Hawaii, you can check the Hardiness Zone Map on my website. If you don’t live in United States, there is also a table available to compare your average lowest winter temperature to a specified zone.

Tip#3: Fertilizing

Knowing what fertilizers to use and how to apply them is critical to getting your roses started off in the right direction this spring.

Basically, there are two groups of fertilizers – synthetic and organic. Quite honestly, the plant doesn’t know the difference between the two. It’s only interested in the ions it can absorb through the roots and leaves. But choosing the right fertilizer and applying it correctly has a significant impact on the hardiness and vigor of your plant.

For the purpose of discussion, synthetic fertilizers are those that are nitrate-based. Often, they contain ammonium nitrate. Nitrates are the form of nitrogen used by the plant. Conversely, organic fertilizers are nitrite-based and must be broken down by microbial activity. After nitrifying bacteria convert the nitrites into nitrates, the plant "gets fed." This is why I use the expression, "Synthetic fertilizers feed the plant. Organic fertilizers feed the soil… which in turn feeds the plant."

Nitrate-based fertilizers can cause serious damage to roses if applied incorrectly or too early in the season. These fertilizers often cause a spurt of tender, young growth - growth that has not had sufficient time to harden before winter's freezing weather is complete. Die-back is often the result.

Likewise, applying these fertilizers creates an over-concentration of nitrogen in the growth tips. This nitrogen attracts plant sucking pests, like aphids, and increases your workload in gardening chores.

Finally, applying nitrate-based fertilizers does little to improve the soil because it shortcuts the nitrogen cycle. And in some cases, these fertilizers may actually damage the soil because many are attached to a salt which is not easily leached away.

Because of this, most every rosarian adds organic supplements as a "tonic" to their garden at the beginning of the rose growing season. The best time for this activity is just after pruning.

Before applying your tonic, it’s a good idea to see what is missing (or what has been consumed) from the garden. This is easily done with an inexpensive soil test kit. Then, modify your tonic to provide extra supplements as needed.

Tip#4: Controlling Beetles

Did you get Japanese Beetles last year? May or June Beetles? Cucumber Beetles? You can control these pest beetles all season long without having to work so hard keeping them away! But now is the time to prepare!

In 30 - 60 days throughout most parts of the country, the Japanese and May/June beetles will begin emerging. Larvae (sometimes called the "White Grubworm") have been over wintering in your soil – munching on roots and generally having a grand old time under your roses. Most species of the Cucumber Beetle overwinter as adults. When warmer temperatures arrive this spring, they lay eggs for the summer’s offspring. The larvae of the Cucumber Beetle are also known as the Corn Rootworm and no less than six species are found throughout the North American continent. All these beetle pests love your rose garden and can decimate foliage, blossoms or both!

If you had pest beetle problems last year, you can minimize their presence this year by applying beneficial nematodes to your garden and roses' watering well as soon as the soil temperatures warm.

Sold by many nurseries, home improvement centers, insectaries and mail-order firms, these products come under a variety of brand names. The "active ingredients" to look for are a species of micro-worms which either go by the name Heterorhabditis or Steinernema. Some products contain a blend of both micro-worms. These micro-worms are harmless to humans, our pets and our roses. But they devastate soil borne pest larvae and eggs (including those of the Harvester Ant, Southern Fire Ant, and Leaf-cutting Ant).

Oh! By the way, if you continue to use diazinon or chlorpyrifos lawn insecticides, you will kill these beneficial critters along with your pest grubs.

Tip#5: Disbudding Roses

Disbudding is the early removal of bloom buds. This practice allows the rose to send nutrients to the buds that remain. The result is a more fashionable, larger rose - one more suitable for display.

On Hybrid Tea roses, you'll notice the terminal bud (the one on the very tip of the stem) is the first to form. Shortly after, secondary buds are formed around the terminal bud. Early removal of these secondary buds sends the rose's energy to the terminal bud - producing a larger bloom. The removal of these secondary buds should be done early in their development. It is easily done with the fingers or pair of tweezers.

On roses that produce multiple blooms, like those of Floribundas or Grandifloras, it is the terminal bud that is removed. On these roses, the terminal bud will open first. By the time surrounding blooms form the terminal rose is almost fully blown. The result is a floral spray with a hole in the center. By removing this terminal bud early in its formation, the rose's energy goes toward those that remain. The result is a floral spray that is full -- without the hole in the center.

If you're interested in displaying roses for competition or just producing a nice specimen for the dinner table, try disbudding a few of your roses. I think you'll be pleased with the results.

Tip#6: Listerine® and Extending the life of cut roses.

Rose scientists are not certain why or even how it works. All they know is that it *does* work.

To preserve the fresh cut appearance of your roses, harvest them early in the morning - before the blooms are fully "blown" (fully opened). Bring them into the house, and place the cut ends into a bowl of water. Then,

with a sharp pair of scissors, re-cut the end of the rose under water and at a 45 degree angle. This second cut should be made about 1 in. (2.5 cm) above the original cut.

Next, slowly retract the stem from the water. A small water droplet should remain on the cut end of the rose. Then insert the cut end into a bottle of Listerine® antiseptic mouthwash, and leave it there for 30 seconds.

Finally, remove the rose from the mouthwash and place it in a vase of fresh water.

Tests using these procedures have shown the cut rose will look fresher and last as much as 30% longer than when using the same procedures without the mouthwash.

And one last note: Be certain to mark the bottle of mouthwash so you won't use it for personal hygiene.

Tip #7: The Rose Community

No matter how hard we try to give you good advice, it's always best to consult with experienced rosarians in your own neighborhood. If you're new to roses (or even if you aren't), be sure to join your local rose society.

There are lots of benefits to growing roses with the friends in your local society. Most societies publish a newsletter full of great tips and "how to's" specific to your own local conditions. You'll have access to Consulting Rosarians - folks who just love giving advice. And you have the opportunity to share your rose experiences with fellow rosarians and learn from each other's successes and failures.

To find a society near you, check for your respective society's homepage on the Internet. For the U.S., the American Rose Society has a list of local societies and their respective points of contact. Some other societies to contact are the Canadian Rose Society and the Royal Horticultural Rose Society in the U.K.

And if there isn't a society near you?..... Start one!