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Master Gardener: Caring for Roses

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Caring for Roses

by UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardener Denise Healy

Shakespeare, trying to define the beauty of Juliet, used the rose´s scent as a metaphor when he wrote “What´s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.” And it was James Barrie who said “God gave us memories so that we might have roses in December.” Now that it´s definitely December, with cold weather and snow to prove it, and with bareroot season arriving early in the upcoming year, it just might be a good time to give your future roses some thought.

The rose is the quintessential flower. Yet, while they tantalize us with their intoxicating beauty, we must never forget they do have certain requirements that must be met. To forget that is to be forever struggling with unhappy plants that never produce the desired result.

In trying to live happily with the dozens of roses inherited with our property purchase a number of years ago, I have learned a few things about them. While some have not survived the novice learning process, others continue to try to help me understand my responsibilities. I have come to appreciate their varied and wonderful habits, smells and colors.

“Right plant, right place” is the first step in growing any healthy plant, not just roses. These days, roses have been cultivated to thrive in many situations. They can be grown with less sun and with less water. There are varieties that handle colder climates and hotter climates, that are thornless, that flower more than once in a season… the list goes on. But whatever requirements for a particular rose, it´s imperative those requirements be met.

Finding the right rose for your particular site is the first step to having beautiful roses. Or, if an established plant is not faring well where it is, find out its site requirements and replant it as the first step to having a happy beautiful specimen. Sometimes, as with my roses, they may have been planted around other plantings that have now matured, casting more shade on the rose. In this case, move the rose to a sunnier locale or remove some of the plantings around it.

Most of my roses were planted outside an enclosed or fenced area. As soon as my roses get a bit of new growth, the deer come by for a gourmet feast! And they don´t even say “thank you” afterwards! Liquid Fence, and other spray-on deterrents, can help, but it can be costly and time consuming.

When planting roses, adequate site preparation is vital. Roses can live for a long, long time, so the soil will need to be prepared with a lot of organic material, composted manure, humus or other amendments. Cultivate the soil to loosen it in the planting area. Then add the amendments, mixing thoroughly with the native soil.

Roses need water to grow vigorously. Especially in their first years, water is essential to plant health. While some roses have been cultivated to handle less water, they cannot be regarded as drought tolerant plants. Drip irrigation and mulching can save on watering costs. A deep watering should be done once a week, no more than twice per week in extremely hot weather. Water should be applied to the ground (not an overhead spray) to reduce fungus and mildew problems.

Regular feeding will keep roses blooming through the season. Rose producers recommend slow release or organic based fertilizers that are applied to the ground. These should be applied beginning in early spring when all danger of frost is past, with the last feeding six weeks before the first frost. The University of California recommends feeding roses twice per year, once in spring and once in fall.

Because rose plants can be susceptible to aphids and other insect pests, powdery mildew, black spot, rust… (well, you get the point), a rose owner may resort to chemical help to fight off problems. Master Gardeners recommend integrated pest management (IPM). According to the U.C. Integrated Pest Management Program, IPM is “an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines, and treatments are made with the goal of removing only the target organism. Pest control materials are selected and applied in a manner that minimizes risks to human health, beneficial and nontarget organisms, and the environment.”

First try to purchase plants that are disease resistant, plant them in the right place, water them adequately, refrain from watering overhead (I know I am being redundant) and then, if problems occur, look for organic ways to fight the problem. This multi-tiered approach, starting with prevention, uses chemical pesticide treatment only when other techniques aren´t effective. Roses are very susceptible to damage from broad-spectrum herbicides, especially glyphosate (Roundup and other brand names). Damage can be caused by herbicide drift from spraying in another area and may not appear until the following year. For more information, see Roses: Diseases and Abiotic Disorders

Pruning helps to maintain an attractive shape and encourages flowering on a healthy plant. In our climate, pruning is best done in January and February, or before buds swell. To prune, make a sloping cut about ?¬ inch above an outward facing bud. Dabbing a small drop of Elmer´s glue on top of the cut will help to seal and protect the new cut from cane borers. Make sure to use clean, sharp shears. It is recommended that shears be cleaned with a light bleach solution after pruning each plant. Using a hand sanitizing towel is a quick and easy way to keep your shears clean. Each variety of rose has its own specifications for pruning. This information can be found at local nurseries, in the gardening section of the local library (where Master Gardener-donated books can be found) and from the Golden Sierra Rose Society, 536-9415.

There is so much more that can be said about caring for roses. While it may seem daunting to take on the task of rose ownership, a vase overflowing with roses on a warm summer day, or the scent in the air from a plant bursting with blooms, makes it all worthwhile. Good preventative care helps tremendously, as does choosing the right plant for the right place. A consistent routine of watering, fertilizing and pruning, and integrated pest management will keep your roses happy and healthy.

If you prefer not to tackle the maintenance of roses yourself, but want to enjoy their beauty, here are a few California public gardens that feature beautiful rose displays. Check them out if you are in these areas: Barona Gardens, San Diego; Descanso Gardens, Flintridge; Filoli Gardens, Woodside; Garden Valley Ranch, Petaluma; Huntington Botanical Gardens, San Marino; The Richard Nixon Library Garden, Yorba Linda.

For more information about roses, contact the UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardener office at 209.533.5696 or go to and click on “Trees and shrubs.”

Denise Healy graduated from the Master Gardener training program in 2007 and is learning from her roses in the Columbia area.


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