Rose Care: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing RosesTen essential steps for ensuring beautiful blooms year after year
Above All™, a disease-resistant climber, blooms continuously from spring to fall. Photo by: Weeks Roses.
Julia Child is an old-fashioned Floribunda rose with a sweet licorice scent. Photo by: Weeks Roses.
Another climber, Dublin Bay isn't picky and will open in either cold and hot weather. Photo by: Weeks Roses.
Rose care is easier than you think—anyone can grow them successfully. Plant your roses in a sunny location with good drainage. Fertilize them regularly for impressive flowers. Water them evenly to keep the soil moist. Prune established rose bushes in early spring. And watch for diseases like powdery mildew or black spot.
If you’ve been afraid to start a rose garden, the truth is, roses are no more difficult to care for than other flowering shrubs. “Modern rose bushes are both beautiful and tough in a wide range of growing conditions, so they are easier to grow than ever before,” says Christian Bedard, research director for Weeks Roses, America’s premier rose grower. To help gardeners who may not have grown roses before, Bedard shares some of his expert tips for successfully growing the queens of the flower garden.
Follow these ten essential rules to grow your own beautiful roses:
1. Know your roots
You can purchase roses already potted in soil or as dormant bare-root plants. Each type has its benefits. If you’re a novice rose grower, container roses are a great way to go because they are easy to plant and establish quickly. They can also be purchased at local nurseries throughout the growing season, allowing you to plant them when climate conditions are ideal.
Bare-root roses, which arrive dormant, offer the widest selection of varieties, but also require more TLC in the months after planting. Photo by: Weeks Roses
One of the biggest advantages of bare-root roses is the greater selection of varieties available. In addition, bare-root lants are an economical and convenient way to order plants by mail that you can’t find at a local nursery. Unlike container roses, however, bare-root plants need to have their roots soaked overnight in water before going in the ground, and the roots must be kept moist the first few months after planting.
“For first-time rose growers, a potted rose may be worth the additional expense if you can find the specific rose variety you want to grow in your garden,” says Bedard.
2. Don’t overdo it
There are numerous classes of roses, ranging from micro-miniatures to grandifloras and from groundcovers to climbing roses, with some classes containing hundreds of varieties. While it may be tempting to fill your rose garden with a wide assortment, you are likely to end up with a disorderly array and too many plants for the space. A few well-chosen varieties will give you far more satisfaction than dozens of mismatched plants that don’t work in harmony. See our Tips for Buying the Perfect Rose.
Limiting the number of rose varieties you grow will help you avoid creating a disorderly and mismatched array. Photo by: Weeks Roses.
3. Find the right site
For the best show of flowers and the healthiest plants, rose bushes should receive six to eight hours of sunlight daily. In especially hot climates, roses do best when they are protected from the hot afternoon sun. In cold climates, planting a rose bush next to a south- or west-facing fence or wall can help minimize winter freeze damage.
Roses also thrive when planted in well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. In heavy clay soil, mix in compost, peat moss, and other organic matter to improve drainage. In lean, sandy soils, adding compost will help to retain moisture near the plant’s roots.
4. Time it right
The best time to plant roses is in the spring, after the last frost, or in the fall at least six weeks before the average first frost in your area. This gives the roots enough time to burrow into the soil before the plants go dormant over the winter.
Bare-root roses are typically available only in early spring and should be planted soon after you bring them home. Roses growing in containers give you more flexibility in planting time and can go into the ground whenever climate conditions are agreeable. “For the best results, plant roses on a calm, cloudy day. Planting on a hot, sunny day or during a summer heat wave can stress a rose bush or any type of plant,” says Bedard.
5. Dig deep
The size of the hole in which you plant your roses is one of the key factors to getting them off to a good start. Whether you are planting bare-root or container roses, you need to dig a hole deep enough and wide enough to accommodate the plant’s roots and to allow for good drainage, since roses don’t like wet feet. If you are planting several rose bushes together, space them at least 3 feet apart to give the plant ample growing room as it matures.
When planting roses, dig a deep, wide hole that allows for proper drainage and leaves room for root growth. Photo by: Weeks Roses.
Mix a generous amount of garden compost, peat moss, or other organic matter with the soil that was removed from the planting hole. Use some of this mixture at the bottom of the planting hole and place the rose bush in the hole. The plant’s crown should be at ground level in mild climates, and 2 to 3 inches below ground level for cold climates. Fill the hole partially with the soil mixture and add a slow-release fertilizer. Water thoroughly, and then finish filling the hole with the remaining soil. Water again, then mound loose soil around the canes to protect the rose while it acclimates to its new site.
6. Fertilize often
To produce an impressive show of flowers, a rose bush needs to be fertilized regularly. Organic methods provide a slow, steady supply of nutrients. Monthly applications of compost, composted manure, and other organic and natural fertilizers, such as this organic fish emulsion, work well. Organic amendments also help to encourage beneficial soil microbes and a well-balanced soil pH.
Slow-release fertilizers, like Jobe's Organic Fertilizer Spikes, supply the right balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other minor nutrients and also give rose bushes the nourishment they need for optimum growth. For newly planted bare-root plants, apply organic amendments to the soil at planting time, then wait until after the plant has produced its first blooms to apply full-strength fertilizers so you don’t burn the new roots. The nutrient content in synthetic fertilizers is higher than what you’ll find in organic amendments, so fewer applications are necessary; however, synthetic (chemical) fertilizers don't improve soil or have a positive residual effect like organics do. Whatever type of fertilizer you use, be sure to follow the product label for quantity and frequency of application. Learn more in our Guide to Fertilizing Roses.
7. Water wisely
Roses do best when soil moisture is kept uniform throughout the growing season. The amount and frequency of watering will depend on your soil type and climate. Roses growing in sandy soils will need more watering than those in heavier clay soils. Hot, dry, and windy conditions will also parch roses quickly. How you water is as important as the frequency. Using a soaker hose is recommend so you deliver water directly to the roots and avoid the leaves.
“To ensure a healthy rose bush, give it the equivalent of 1 inch of rainfall per week during the growing season. Water at the soil level to avoid getting the foliage wet, because wet leaves encourage diseases such as black spot and powdery mildew,” says Bedard.
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8. Prune like a pro
It’s almost impossible to kill a rose bush by overpruning, but if you follow a few simple rules, the results will look more professional and result in a healthier plant. “Modern roses don’t need as much pruning as most people think. However, an established rose bush appreciates a basic pruning in early spring,” says Bedard. A good pair of bypass pruners (not anvil style) and rose pruning gloves can make the job even easier.
First, remove all dead and damaged canes (any that look brown), then cut back a third to a half of the previous year’s growth until you find healthy, white centers inside the cane. If you live in a climate with a dormant season, the best time to do a hard pruning is in early spring, around March or April. However, you can lightly prune your roses all season long to keep them well-groomed. For step-by-step pruning instructions, see Pruning Roses.
The only other pruning needed for most varieties of reblooming roses is deadheading to encourage reblooming throughout the season. Just cut back below the first five-leaflet stem to promote regrowth. If your rose bushes are “self-cleaning,” which means they don’t develop rose hips, no deadheading is needed because the blooms will drop off automatically and the plants will keep on producing more flowers.
9. Keep them healthy
The best way to prevent rose diseases is to choose disease-resistant varieties. These roses are bred and selected to resist the most common rose afflictions, including powdery mildew and black spot.
Powdery mildew typically appears during the summer, especially when the days are hot and dry and the nights are cool and wet. The tell-tale signs include leaves that curl and twist and the development of a white, powdery down on the leaves. To avoid powdery mildew, water plants at ground level in the morning, since wet leaves, especially overnight, provide the perfect growing environment. Pruning a rose bush to allow air to circulate through the foliage also helps prevent this powdery growth.
This rose leaf has been damaged by downy mildew. Photo by: Susan Fox.
Black spot is a waterborne fungal disease that appears as circular black or brown spots on the top side of leaves, starting toward the bottom of a bush and working its way up, eventually causing defoliation. Prevent this disease the same way you prevent powdery mildew, by improving air circulation through the plant and watering at ground level. A simple mixture of baking soda and horticultural oil can help fight the spread of black spot, or use an organic 3-in-1 fungicide, like this one. (Also see Rose Woes: Black Spot).
Pesky insects that like to feed on rose bushes include aphids, Japanese beetles, spider mites, and sawflies. Most of these pests can be controlled with neem oil or insecticidal soap. In the case of aphids, a blast of water from a hose in the morning is often the only treatment necessary.
For the most part, roses are tough and resilient and will thrive with minimal pampering. “You don’t need to do much to get the best new roses to grow well,” says Bedard. “Newer varieties of roses are much more vigorous and much more disease resistant than older varieties.”
This arrangement features ‘Julia Child’ and ‘Ebb Tide’. Photo by: Weeks Roses.
10. Show them off
Of course, one of the greatest pleasures of planting garden roses is the harvest. Roses have long been prized for their beautiful and fragrant cut flowers, but no roses are lovelier than those gathered fresh from your own garden. Here are a few rules of thumb for preserving your cut roses as long as possible:
- Roses will last the longest when they are cut immediately after the bud stage, when the petals are starting to open.
- Use hand pruners or garden scissors with sharp blades to cut the stems without damaging their water uptake channels.
- Cut roses when they are dewy fresh and hydrated, either early in morning or during the evening, so the plant isn’t stressed from hot weather and sun exposure.
- Recut the rose stems right before putting them in a vase to eliminate any air bubbles that will prevent them from taking in water. Also cut the stems at a 45-degree angle so they don’t rest flat on the bottom of the vase.
- Strip off any lower leaves that fall below the water line to avoid rot and bacterial growth. Above the water line, leave as much foliage as possible, which will help to draw up water.
- Change the water frequently — daily if possible — to remove any bacteria. Also recut the flower stems every few days to improve water absorption.