Rose basics- How to survive being a rose grower
Roses are the epitome of the gardener’s art. They’re revered, rightly, as extraordinary flowers. They’re treated like gems, which in some ways they are.
That said, roses are tough as old boots, often difficult, fabulous flowers which can teach you a lot about gardening. To quote one of my books, “any rose grower will tell you it’s a matter of opinion who’s growing whom”. You can usually tell when the roses are winning.
The idea of this article is to de-mystify the process of growing roses and hopefully include a valuable element in any gardener’s arsenal- Respect for what they’re growing. Learn that, and you’ll get a lifetime’s experience in a second.
Roses are sometimes fussy. Some soils really aren’t suitable. They’re not “sensitive”, however, as many books would have you believe. These plants are related to that other shrinking violet of botany, the blackberry. They’re also equally hardy. Roses are fighters. The dog rose, Rosa canina, the ancestor of the modern roses, is a savage beast, territorial and acquisitive, and big roses will act the same way, if they get a chance.
They do need soil preparation on principle, unless you’ve got a good, well-mulched soil on hand. A good rose food, mixed with some seaweed mulch, is a good all-purpose starter culture for a new rose. Seaweed mulch can be added at about 1:4 of the total mix or more. Seaweed has absolutely everything. It’s economical and reliable. I’ve never yet lost any plant in seaweed mixes.
Roses can survive well in any soil as long as it has good drainage and is reasonably moist when they need it. They like clays, because they’re slightly acid soils. The pH values vary, but around 6 or a bit under is about right either way.
The other thing you need to know about roses and soil is that in the growing season they’re gluttons. I had a Queen Elizabeth rose, a big tough old rose, which would literally inhale compost. I’d put it down and a couple of days later it was gone. It was like watching a kid drinking a milkshake. The more compost they get, the better, and make sure it’s good quality for best results.
Rose pests and spots
Roses are prone to some pests and to black spot in particular. These pests are usually aphids or white fly. They’re easily removable, but make sure you get a spray that works. Either that or very efficient predators. Some organic sprays do work, but these are ornery pests, so don’t get too nice about how you handle them. What works is what you need.
Black spot is a real curse, and it’s one of a range of rose pests which is probably the best example of general management practices. It’s often virulent and can take over a whole rose garden. It must be stopped ASAP. It can weaken the roses, which are investing in their leaves. Regrowth and fighting pests and fungi drains more energy. The rose needs backup, so be prepared to come to the rescue.
The good news is that most commercial black spot sprays will shut it down pretty well. The bad news is that the roses have picked up the black spot from too much moisture, which allows the black spot to grow very effectively in shaded or crowded areas.
Air circulation and sunlight is critical to rose health. Some roses really do get bunched up and grow so many leaves they create perfect habitats for black spot and places for pests to avoid predators. This situation can be avoided by judicious pruning, (see below) but when you see these problems, that’s the big issue.
Growth habits and pruning
Roses will get “leggy” at the slightest excuse. I remember coming home from work and seeing what looked like a rose suspended in mid-air. The rose had grown a very long, thin cane and sprouted a flower. It was beautiful hilarious and I had no idea what to do about it. It looked so good I left it there, but that’s not strictly the textbook management style.
The textbook, as a matter of fact, is usually right, particularly with cultivars like the hybrid tea roses. Some of these are great roses. They’re reliable and strong. Others, however, for whatever reason, aren’t so great. They really do need the extra care, and that includes keeping a close eye on how they grow.
The story with growth habits is to keep the strong parts of the rose.
Everything else is a possible liability, particularly if it’s a new rose. The strictly by the book approach is trustworthy:
The base of the rose develops a strong woody bush like “trunk”. This is used as the base for next year’s growth. Everything else, and you’ll see this for yourself, tends to get a bit disorganized as the rose grows. This is where the clutter arises. The rose will develop a canopy, which promotes the problems above with pests and black spot.
This is where pruning, both seasonal and local maintenance, comes into the picture:
Local maintenance is used to prevent internally facing “branches” during the growing season. (They’re not actually called “branches” by the experts, but “canes”. I’m using “branches to distinguish the long term growth patterns because it’s a descriptor which is instantly recognizable.) If anything grows inwards rather than outwards away from the other branches, it’s in the process of becoming a problem. Remove these things before they cause trouble.
Seasonal maintenance is the pre-winter prune. The best practice method is to prune down to the strong base. Keep the basic shape of the rose with space between the big branches. Most growers advise you to prune down hard, which is good advice most of the time, but don’t lose any good shape which the rose is developing with its secondary branches.
Pruning should emphasize the basic rule of rose growing- Create a good shape which allows the rose to grow with good expansion and space between canes. This means the base shouldn’t be cluttered. Keep the good strong canes at a distance from each other and don’t tolerate canes which are too close to each other.
A word of caution- Don’t go nuts on the hard pruning. It can be counterproductive if the rose wakes up for the next growing season and finds itself a diminished shrub. The woody canes are valuable to the rose. These are long term assets for its growth, so be careful you’re not doing any real damage.
Getting an education from a rose
In growing season, a good rose will dazzle you with its power and grace. This is where you start getting your education in what these incredible plants can really do. Imagine a Monet being painted and you’ll get some idea of what you’re learning.
The sheer character of an individual rose can baffle and bemuse. An old rose can just sit there like a mountain or a galaxy, inscrutable and astonishing. If you have the soul of an artist, it’ll be feeling good after communing with your roses. This is the plant that’s come to symbolize romance, and even that barely does it justice. It’s an exercise in life. Watch a rose’s battles and triumphs, hard times and in bad weather, and you’ll see why rose growers are a distinct species in the gardening world.
You’ll also never regret it.