If I were limited to just one group of plants in my garden, that group would consist of sustainable roses. By “sustainable” I mean those roses that can grow without chemicals — with perhaps the exception of fertilizer. Growing these roses is not hard, but it does take some diligence and preparation because all roses have specific requirements.
Now for my tetanus warning: When working with roses it is imperative both to have an up-to-date tetanus booster and to wear good gardening gloves, preferably ones designed to handle the thorns (technically prickles) on rose canes. The soil — even the nicest, well-bred soil — contains toxins. Working with roses means occasionally you will bleed. Substitute rose thorns for the proverbial rusty nail and you have a good chance of coming into contact with the bacterium that causes tetanus.
The first thing the gardener must do is to prepare the site — and before you start muttering that all you want to do is dig a hole and put the rose in it, let me assure you that you’ll pass the test better if you’ve done your homework.
Roses need sun, preferably six hours of sun. Rose nurseries will euphemistically term some roses as “shade tolerant,” but this doesn’t mean these roses are ideal companions for hostas. In rose language, “shade tolerant” means the roses can survive with just four hours of bright sunlight. In an ideal world, roses would be sited so they receive a little relief from the hot late afternoon summer sun, but more sun is better than less sun.
Roses require “well-draining soil,” a term we gardeners love to throw out. Here in the North Carolina Piedmont, our clay soil drains very, very slowly. Like us, rose roots will die if they are deprived of oxygen over a period of time. In sandy soils, where the soil particles are quite large, water drains too quickly, so roses can die of thirst. The solution to both of these problems is compost.
Compost added to clay will lighten the soil, permitting water to drain more quickly; compost added to sand will increase the soil’s ability to retain moisture. The important thing to remember is that, like us, rose roots need both moisture and oxygen.
Now dig a hole at your prepared site. If the rose roots have overgrown their pot, pry the roots loose so they will grow out rather than in a tight circle. As for fertilizing, follow the directions that come with your roses. Roses arriving in two-gallon pots from The Antique Rose Emporium were fertilized in the late winter, so they do not require an initial fertilizing. All roses from good mail-order sources come with instructions.
Once planted in the garden, many rose varieties will go through a transplant shock, managing to look dreadful. I didn’t tell you growing sustainable roses was easy. Often wanting to throw up my hands, crying “Uncle!” at this point, I persevere. In my experience the rose will soon lose this all-I-want-to-do-is-die look. I was sure I had lost Abraham Darcy six weeks after planting, but with regular watering he decided to stick around, and at the end of this first growing season actually bears a healthy glow.
Now is the start of a long regime of watering. As I have said, roses need water but they don’t want wet feet. They also do not benefit from having water on their leaves, so never water roses with a sprinkler system. Watering roses means watering their roots only. The fungus in the soil that causes black spot, the scourge of hybrid tea roses, needs eight hours of surface moisture if its spores are to sprout. For this reason, experts tell gardeners to water roses in the morning and water only the roots.
Should you get some leaves wet in the morning, don’t panic, don’t reach for the hairdryer, but know that watering in the evening carries greater risk for black spot, as there’s a greater likelihood the leaves will remain wet throughout the night.
New rose growers always want to know how much water roses need, a difficult question to answer because conditions differ from state to state. Here in North Carolina, our summers are long with frequent dry spells. The recommended inch per week is meaningless here because water evaporation can be quick in these hot, dry conditions.
If we have received little rain, I typically will water the new roses every day and the established roses twice a week. If all your roses are grouped together en masse, an established drip system works beautifully. If your roses are like mine, scattered throughout the garden, hand-watering is the best option.
For those of you who have only one to three roses, let the water drip very slowly out of the hose around the roots for a couple of hours. However I have too many roses to water this way; instead I count. I know how much water a single rose is getting by counting 1-10 slowly.
Newly planted roses need help in getting through the summer heat and drought. I don’t worry about my old established roses as much, and there are some tough roses like Rosa roxburgii, aka the chestnut rose, R. bankiae, and Peggy Martin that are so well-established that I give them no water or fertilizer.
As for fertilizer, I tend to use as little fertilizer as possible, but I have reluctantly concluded that in my garden my roses require some help. Compost is magical when added to our soils, but — and this is a big but — compost adds little in the way of nutrition.
It is always a good idea to get a soil test through your local county extension service to see what you need to provide your roses. The indication that my beautiful dark soil needed some nutrition came from my underperforming daylilies. A soil test quickly confirmed my suspicions, and now my roses receive a minimum of fertilizer.
In March when the roses are in active growth, I spread out a couple of tablespoons of a continuous-release fertilizer. Then after the first round of spring blooms, I give each rose a shot of Mills Easy Feed fertilizer, following the directions on the bottle. I do this on a monthly basis until September when I stop feeding the roses, as I want their new growth to harden off before the first frost, typically occurring here in November. The old cliché that roses are heavy feeders contains a lot of truth.
I have noticed that different varieties require different amounts of fertilizer. As I mentioned, Peggy Martin (read her incredible story here) seems to require little fertilizer, whereas the earth-kind Duchesse de Brabant needs regular feedings. Just because a rose bears the designation of “earth-kind” doesn’t mean that they can do without water and fertilizer.
Now you will sit and wait. If you’re lucky, your roses will bloom the first season, but some varieties just vegetate. The climbing rose Eden simply sat by one column throughout three growing seasons without even growing one inch. Now on her fourth growing season, Eden is determined to catch up with Cl. Pinkie, who, sharing the opposite pillar, took off during the first growing season.
Some roses will enchant you during the first growing season, some will just sit there, and some will emerge as ugly ducklings. The old adage referring to perennials is apt here: The first year they sleep/ the next year they creep/ and the third year they leap. Depending upon the variety, this may well be their pattern.
Some jump into the fray immediately, while others get gawky. I had a damask rose, Rose de Rescht, who spent three years in a stage of true teenage gawkiness only to emerge during her fourth growing season demonstrating enough potential to prevent me from ripping her out. Hopefully she’ll turn into a swan, but time will only tell. What is the gardener to do? You simply have to wait it out before you decide whether you love or loathe a particular rose.
The last thing to consider — if you aren’t exhausted at this point — is pruning. Shrub and climbing roses are not pruned severely as are the hybrid teas. Never take off more than one-third of these roses. Prune off the dead canes in the late winter, and throughout the growing season prune off the spent roses down to a five leaflet. Stop pruning six weeks before the estimated first frost as the rose needs that time to harden off any new growth — and pruning encourages new growth.
This information is just the tip of the iceberg. Spend the winter warming your feet by the fire while reading about roses. “Everyday Roses” by Paul Zimmerman is a good start. Paul Kukielski’s “Roses Without Chemicals” is due out in February.
Just remember that growing sustainable roses is quite different from growing hybrid teas but just as addictive. Once acquired, this addiction can turn into an obsession.