14 Master Gardeners’ Secrets to Growing the Rose Garden of Your Dreams
Our master gardeners know exactly how to make a rose bloom, and we've got their best tips for ultimate rose gardens right here.
Envision your dream rose garden
“Before you embark on planting a rose garden, you should ask yourself what you want them for,” advises Steve Bender, who writes the “Grumpy Gardener” column for Southern Living. There are hundreds and hundreds of different types of roses, Bender explains. Some bloom all season, and some just once a year, so if you’re looking to fill your house with fresh cuttings, then you’ll want roses that rebloom. Some roses fill a garden with perfume; some are as scentless as Formica, so if you’re looking for scented roses, make sure that’s what you choose, Bender advises. Here are 18 tips for growing gorgeous roses.
Then ask yourself what a rose garden wants from you
Roses have needs, advises Bender, and if you’re not prepared to meet those needs, you really should consider planting something other than roses (he’s the “grumpy” gardener, after all). Those needs include:
- Lots and lots of sunlight. If you don’t have a spot with exposure to at least six hours’ worth of unfiltered sun per day, then you really should consider planting something other than roses. That said, easterly exposure is sufficient, according to Jim Luce, the Grounds Supervisor for Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. In addition, roses require protection from harsh afternoon sun, says Amy Enfield, PhD, Consumer Horticulturist & Content Specialist at Scotts Miracle-Gro. So ideally you’ll want to situate your rose garden where it will fall under at least dappled shadow during the harshest sunlight hours (generally regarded to be between noon and 2 p.m.).
- Well-drained soil. Although roses are thirsty, as Bender says, they don’t want to be hanging around with wet feet, so your soil should be well-drained.
- Fertile soil. Roses are hungry too, according to Bender, and that means they prefer fertile soil that contains oodles of organic matter such as composted cow manure, chopped leaves, soil conditioner, and ground bark.
- Good air circulation. It’s important that your rose garden gets good air circulation (try to find a spot that’s open to breezes without being windy) because, as Dr. Enfield says, roses can be prone to fungal problems.
- The right space. Also, make sure that the roses you’re planting will fit into the area that you’ve designated. Check what height the roses will mature to, suggests Bender. “You don’t want to plant a larger growing variety in front of a less vigorous variety to avoid shading out the smaller variety as they mature.”
Time your rose garden planting
The best time to plant roses is in mid- to late-spring, says Bender. That’s when the plants are blooming (so you can see what they look like), the largest selection is available, and you can get them in the ground before the summer heat arrives. Most roses come potted, although if you’re buying in early spring, you can get get away spending less money by buying bare-root roses, which means the plant comes in a plastic bag with its roots wrapped only in moist moss. No matter when you buy your roses, get them in the ground within ten days of purchase, advises Lester Poole, the Master Gardener for the department store chain, Lowes. Here’s your handy guide for doing everything with perfect timing.
Start prepping your rose garden soil now
No matter when you plan on doing the actual planting, start preparing your soil right this very minute, Bender suggests. As noted above, roses require well-drained, fertile soil. You can amend virtually any soil to be better-drained as well as more-fertile, and that starts with adding lots and lots of organic matter. “The more organic matter you add, the more earthworms and beneficial soil microbes you’ll foster, and the looser, better draining, more fertile, and more welcoming to rose roots your soil will be.” If you’re starting with truly poor quality soil, you can get a head start toward amending it with good quality pre-prepared rose soil, advises Poole. “Dig a generous hole (at least three times the plants width and about half-again the root length), and mix the native soil half-and-half with the rose soil and use as your backfill.” Check out these eco-friendly tips for making your garden even greener.
Follow these steps to plant your rose garden properly
Although the planting, itself, represents a tiny fraction of the time you’ll spend caring for your roses, it’s vital to do it properly. After deciding where you want to locate your rose garden, preparing the soil and purchasing the healthiest plants you can find, make sure to take the following steps:
- Cut off any dead leaves and decayed roots, Poole advises.
- Soak the roots in water overnight (this applies to potted and bare-root plants), says Bender.
- Dig a hole at least twice as wide as the root system or root ball and no deeper than the length of the root system plus the graft union (if it is a grafted rose), Dr. Enfield says, although if the winters in your area are particularly cold, the graft union should be below the soil level (up to two inches), and for warmer climates, the graft union should be just above the soil level.
- For bare-root roses spread out the roots evenly in the planting hole; for container roses, make sure to gently loosen the roots, especially those circling around the bottom of the container.
- After placing the roots, gently fill in the remainder of the hole with soil, tamping it down gently as you go to remove any air pockets (air pockets kill roots). Take some of the soil and form a mound around the rose’s root zone (this creates a moat to help funnel water to the roots where it’s needed).
- Water thoroughly, filling the moat two to three times to make sure the entire root system is wet).
Keep your rose garden hydrated
Right after planting, it’s particularly important to keep hydrating the roots, but roses are always thirsty, especially once they begin blooming, Bender says. That said, Bender warns against wetting the foliage while doing it, as this encourages disease. “Soaker-hoses, drip irrigation, or careful hand watering work well.” To prevent fungus and mildew, do your watering in the morning, Luce advises. Here are seven ways to keep yourself well-hydrated.
Keep your rose garden aerated
“Over time, soil can become compacted which hinders the absorption of water and nutrients,” says Susan Brandt, co-founder and president of Blooming Secrets. She recommends aerating the soil, which involves “taking a pitchfork, inserting it into the group at least one foot away from the base of the rose and moving the pitchfork back and forth to loosen the soil. The base of the rose is where the rose stem meets the soil line. Roses have roots that are quite shallow and if you get too close to the base of the plant you could damage those roots. You should aerate around the rose in a circle from that one-foot mark to three feet away from the base.” Find out what your favorite rose color says about you.
Feed your rose garden
Fertilizing roses should be easy because there are dozens of branded rose foods out there, Bender says, and you can and should apply them according to their labeling. But timing is crucial. Start with an organic, slow-release fertilizer in spring, advises Luce. Over the summer months, Bender suggests feeding roses during the “resting” periods between their blooming cycles.
Special treats for roses include:
- Probiotics: The probiotics available in compost and compost tea helps inoculate your soil with beneficial microbes, says Robert Niedermyer, PhD, Director of Plant and Soil Science at Holganix. “In turn, soil microbes will work to naturally impede disease, access nutrients locked in the soil and atmosphere, and grow a deep, web-like root system.”
- Epsom salts: a tablespoon or two goes a long way in improving color, floriferousness, and overall health of roses (because the magnesium in Epsom salts helps elevate chlorophyll levels, which enhances nutrient production, Lowes’ Poole explains.
- Banana peels: “It might sound strange, but banana peels can be an excellent source of phosphorus—an important nutrient for roses,” says Dr. Neidermyer’s colleague, veteran horticultural expert Ed Karpyn. “Chop the banana peels and bury them three to four inches below the soil,” he advises. (Here are more surprising uses for bananas.)
But be sure to stop feeding your roses about six weeks before your earliest autumn frost date, Bender advises. “Feeding late in the season may encourage soft new growth which can then be damaged for killed by the oncoming winter cold.” Poole explains.
Pest control for your rose garden
Roses in general are susceptible to a host of insects and diseases, says Bender. The solution usually requires frequent spraying, he adds, but that scares off many beginning gardeners who either don’t want the work, are afraid of “chemicals,” or both. “Fortunately, there are natural, organic ways to get around this,” he says. One such organic solution is neem oil, from an extract of a tropical tree. Neem oil controls many rose pests such as Japanese beetles, mites, and aphids. It also prevents common rose diseases, including black spot and powdery mildew. Bender advises spraying it only on the leaves, and not the flowers, however, because neem oil is toxic to honeybees. And, if you’re absolutely against spraying away your pests, Bender suggests planting roses that specifically are bred to require no spraying. These include the Knockout series, the Home Run series, and the Oso Easy series. They’re immune to black spot and powdery mildew, bloom nearly continuously during the growing season, come in a range of flower colors, and form compact bushes three to five feet tall and wide that need little pruning. “Drift roses are great too,” Bender adds, “because they give you all of benefits of the no-spray roses just mentioned, plus they grow more like a ground cover.” These are the worst garden pests—and how to get rid of them.
Companion planting for your rose garden
Garden blogger and author Dianne Venetta has another solution for anti-sprayers: “Garlic is a wonderful form of organic pest control,” she tells Reader’s Digest, “because aphids and snails hate it, and it has anti-fungal properties.” She suggests planting garlic in autumn so that it will be ready in May or June. “It’s a small thing, but it could make a huge difference for a thriving rose garden,” she says. Find out more surprising benefits of garlic.
Deadhead your rose garden during the blooming season
Deadheading refers to removing dead flowers, which encourages new blooms. Luce and Dr. Enfield emphasize the importance of deadheading during the blooming season, although Dr. Enfield points out that some “low maintenance” roses are self-deadheading, which means you don’t have to be bothered. But stop deadheading in autumn. “Autumn is when we should encourage our roses to start preparing for winter,” Dr. Enfield explains. “As long as we continue to pick the flowers (which is hard not to when they’re still sending out gorgeous blossoms), the rose bush continues to push its energy into making flowers rather than storing up for the winter months ahead.” So, once you see the leaves beginning to fall, step away from that rose bush. Here are eight tips for helping your cut-flowers stay fresh longer.
Prune your rose garden properly
Pruning is the removal of dead branches, and it’s another rose-growing factor for which timing matters. “Prune all dead branches in the spring,” Dr. Enfield instructs. “Roses will tolerate removal of one-third of the old growth in the spring. The summer flowers will grow on the new growth.” When pruning, always dip your shears in 20 percent bleach solution (eight parts water, two parts bleach plus a few drops of liquid dish detergent),” advises Poole. “Sterilize your tools between cuts to prevent spreading disease.” But once autumn arrives, stop pruning. “Never prune or cut back rose bushes in the fall,” Luce warns, “because the leaves are still making food (i.e. energy from growing gorgeous flowers) for next year.” This includes leaving the seed pods (the “rose hips”) right where they are, says Poole. The exception, Karpyn notes, is in transitional zones, for which he recommends an October pruning to help sunlight and air reach between the branches and allow the sun to dry leaves faster (which helps prevent disease outbreaks).
Autumn care for your rose garden
In autumn, in addition to not fertilizing and not pruning and you’ll want to clean up those fallen leaves. “Pick up as many of the leaves from under and around the plant as you can,” advises Brandt. “This is particularly important if your rose bush had any problems with black spot or other diseases as the failure to remove these leaves can lead to the problem starting all over again next year.” Here is how to prepare your home for fall (and winter) while you’re at it.
Winter care for your rose garden
Our experts agree that it’s advisable to add mulch on top of the soil before winter comes—for added protection against the cold. “But make sure to keep the mulch off the stem,” Luce says, “because mice love to live under the mulch and will eat the stem bark in the winter.” Luce also points out that mulching in the summer is helpful for conserving moisture (and does not interfere with soil drainage). “The canes of climbing roses should be secured during the winter to prevent abrasion and keep buds viable,” according to Jim Zoppo, owner of Sharon View Nursery and host of a gardening radio show called “Jim Zoppo’s American Landscape” that airs in New England. Zoppo also advises protecting roses from hungry deer and rabbits in winter by using hardware cloth and/or various repellents. “In really cold parts of the country, roses bushes can also be wrapped in burlap or covered with rose cones to help protect them from the harsh winter,” adds Dr. Enfield. “And you can go as thick as 10 to 12 inches with the mulch.” In New England, in particular, “tree roses (standard) should be containerized and brought in to a protected area during winter months,” advises Zoppo. “Tree rose specimens can also be buried outdoors in a pit and mulched heavily. They can be wrapped with burlap but never use plastic in contact with plants.” Find out why roses are so popular for Valentine’s Day.