Roses are a little bit like celebrities. Both have a reputation for being mysterious, elusive and a little bit fussy, and yet somehow they are available everywhere—even in the grocery store checkout line.
But take a closer look at this age-old flower. Roses have a lot more to offer than fodder for tabloids; they have been and always will be a star in the home and garden. Their blooms offer color and fragrance that is at home equally in formal gardens or cottage gardens, in tidy borders or wild beds, climbing trellises or lining fences. And no other flower plays quite so many roles, representing the gamut of human expression: love and sympathy, friendship and romance, beauty and peace. Even the many different colors of roses have come to express different meanings. This magically iconic flower deserves a place in everyone’s garden.
The rose has a long and storied history, dating back to ancient times. It is believed that the Chinese were the first to cultivate roses; the ancient Greeks and Romans were crazy about them too. Fortunately for us, colonists heading for the New World in the 16th century brought roses to cultivate here. In 1798, France’s Empress Josephine Bonaparte created a remarkable rose garden including every known variety at the time. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the rose as our country’s national flower. Roses are truly a global phenomenon.
Ask any “rosarian,” the official term for a bona fide rose expert certified by the American Rose Society, if the rumors about roses being difficult to grow are true, and they’ll likely deny it. They’ll tell us there is a rose for every garden, but the key to success is picking the right one for your area, your yard and your taste.
As you learn more about roses, you may quickly realize that a PhD might be necessary to understand the many thousands of rose varieties and the many ways to classify them. At the most basic level of understanding, however, it’s helpful to know that roses are divided into classes based on their date of introduction. The divisions include species roses, which have been growing in the wild for thousands of years; Old Garden roses, which include those introduced before 1867 when the first hybrid rose was created; and Modern roses, those introduced after 1867.
Within these divisions, roses are further classified based upon their physical characteristics like their growth habits, foliage and flower forms. Some of the most common roses you’ll see in our area include landscape roses, which are actually flowering shrubs that bloom repeatedly throughout the season and tend to be the most fuss-free; hybrid tea roses, which are the classic long-stemmed beauties that typically hold one blossom at the end of each flowering stem; grandifloras, which are much like hybrid teas but produce small clusters of blossoms; miniatures, the scaled-down versions that bloom abundantly and repeatedly; and climbers, which produce long and strong canes that can be tied and trained to grow up to 30 feet. To learn more, it’s best to consult the experts at the garden center where you buy your roses; they’ll have the best information about what will work for you, and can steer you in the right direction if you are new to the rose culture.
Planting Roses in Your Garden
Roses are sold two ways: as bare-root plants, to be purchased and planted in early spring, and as container-grown plants, available for planting almost any time. If you are new to planting roses, it’s a good idea to check the pH of your soil; experts suggest that the soil’s pH should be in the 6.0 to 6.8 range. If it’s not, you can amend the soil for best results (agricultural limestone to raise pH, sulfur to lower it). Working some organic matter into the soil is also a great investment of time; doing so will improve the soil’s capacity to hold water and other nutrients.
There are a few fundamentals critical to rose success. Roses need water—and lots of it. Because they are so thirsty, it is unlikely that they can ever get too much water if they are planted in a well-drained location. For while they love to drink, they don’t like to sit in waterlogged soil. They prefer a long, deep watering, rather than frequent light waterings; this allows the water to reach and nourish the root zone. To figure out the right amount of water for your roses, try this: Dig a hole with a small trowel a few days after you’ve watered. If the soil is still moist to a depth of 2 to 3 inches, your rose is happy. If it’s dry, it’s time to water. Watch for signs of underwatering, including wilting shoots at the top of the bush, and signs of overwatering, when lower leaves turn yellow and drop.
Be sure to focus your watering efforts on the soil, not the foliage; wet foliage encourages growth of fungal diseases like black spot. Drip-irrigation systems or soaker hoses are ideal, but if you use a traditional sprinkler system, be sure to water early in the morning to give the leaves ample time to dry.
Roses also need a good dose of sunlight, at least 6 hours of sun per day—though they do enjoy a little afternoon shade. A good mulching of two to four inches (pine bark, cedar chips, pine straw) around a rose bush will protect it by conserving water as well as providing a nice layer of insulation, keeping the roots cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
Roses also like a regular dose of nutrients—probably every four weeks or so during the summer—to provide the best blooms. If you have newly planted roses, wait until after their first flush of blooms before fertilizing. Water your roses before fertilizing to avoid burning the rose’s surface feeder roots. Experts at the garden center can recommend the best fertilizer and recommended application, whether organic matter (bone meal, fish emulsion, alfalfa meal) or synthetic fertilizer (dry, liquid or foliar). It’s equally important to know when to stop fertilizing; after feasting and blooming all summer, your roses need a cue to slow down on the blooms and get ready for winter dormancy.
One of the main reasons roses have the reputation for being fussy is because of their susceptibility to some pests and diseases; blackspot, powdery mildew and spider mites are a few common rose ailments in our area. Though some problems are unavoidable, prevention helps stave off problems; well-tended, healthy plants are less likely to fall prey to pests. Keep the area around the plant free of fallen leaves and flowers, and remove discolored leaves when you see them. If you notice a recurring problem, take a damaged leaf to the garden center for advice. Some fungicidal or insecticidal spraying may be in order, but your solution may be as simple as removing the damaged foliage or spraying leaves with a strong blast of water to manually remove the offenders.
Some types of roses that bloom only once don’t need to be deadheaded, but most roses that bloom all summer need this process to encourage more blooms. To deadhead, cut the flower back to just above a healthy leaf with five leaflets. Experts suggest, however, that if you are working with a new plant that has only a few stems, it’s best to remove as few leaves as possible, even if that means cutting just below the flower. The important thing to note is that deadheading encourages new growth. Stop deadheading about a month before the first fall frost; you don’t want your roses to produce new growth that might be damaged by cold.
Enjoying Roses Inside
Cutting roses to enjoy inside is a win-win situation; you’ll be inspired by the beauty and your plant will be inspired to produce more blooms. For the best bouquets, cut early in the morning, or the late afternoon or early evening. Choose stems with flower buds that are no more than half open, and cut just above a leaf to encourage more stem growth. Place cut flowers directly in a bucket of warm water and move to a cool place; if you can spare the time, it’s worth it to leave the roses immersed like this for an hour or so. Recut the stem on an angle before placing in a vase, removing any foliage below the water level in the vase. One stem is beautifully simple in a small bud vase, but roses are also ideal companions in mixed bouquets.
This summer, bring a little history, a dash of drama and a touch of celebrity to your yard by incorporating the rose. Get to know this superstar flower that truly stands the test of time.