Thorn and Bloom: All About Growing Roses

Let’s get this straight: roses are a symbol for love for most excellent reasons. 

They are difficult, they are cruel, and they will cut you.

And yet, the sight and fragrance of a rose bouquet can be one of the most ephemeral transcendent experiences of beauty the natural world can gift to us. Nothing else smells like a fragrant garden rose, and perhaps no other flower offers such a variety of color and shape.  

I have been growing roses first as a hobbyist, then  professional flower grower, for over two decades, and I still don’t feel I have mastered them, but over time we have settled into a comfortable relationship of love and respect. Living here on the California coast is an almost ideal environment for roses, for they thrive in the summer heat and dry weather. Some varieties can bloom almost continuously from May to November. They can be demanding, for they want lots of fertilization, pruning, deadheading, and treatment for fungal diseases, but they also can be utterly neglected and usually won’t die. I have abandoned roses for years, only to have them spring up in full health and vigor after a hard winter prune and a bit of food.

Choosing Roses for Your Garden

There are over three hundred species and thousands of cultivars. (Roses, Wikipedia) To further complicate matters, there are 30 some odd classes of garden roses, including names you may have heard like floribunda, grandiflora, tea rose, etc (more about classes of roses here).

So, what rose should you grow, and where will you buy it? First, think about where you will plant this rose, and therefore what size and shape it should be. Different rose cultivars can be ground cover, hedges, climbing vines, but most often, they are shrubs ranging from three to six feet in height. Your local nursery is a great place to start to buy a rose in bloom during the mid-spring to early summer. Local stores will tend to stock varieties known to do well in your region, and there is nothing like rose window shopping, seeing the colors and smelling the scents.

I tend to buy my roses online in the late Fall however, and plant them as bare root in January for one main reason. Bare root shrubs planted in winter get to establish a healthy root system before they grow leaves and flowers, which gives them a great healthy start in their new homes. The two online suppliers I adore are David Austin Roses from England and Week’s Roses which are grown relatively locally here in California and are found in nurseries in Santa Cruz and the Bay.

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Planting Roses

I don’t fuss much when I plant roses. Here are the basics:

  • Plant in full sun, or as much sun as possible, with a minimum of 6 hours.

  • The type of soil doesn’t matter too much, but rich loam with a bit of compost is always nice.

  • When to plant:

    - Winter for bare root. This timing works well in our mild California Coastal winters. In colder climates, plant as soon as the ground thaws.

    - Mid spring to early summer for plants in bloom.

  • Dig a hole twice as big as your plant.

  • Add a handful of bonemeal to your planting hole.

  • Place the roots in the hole and backfill with soil, don’t bury the plant crown.

  • Water deeply.

  • Mulch with wood chips if you have some handy.

  • Provide support for climbers.

Port Sunlight Rose from David Austin

Caring for Roses

Water your roses deeply and approximately weekly in the summer, more when there is a heatwave, and less when there is fog or rain. 

Fertilize your roses at least once a year, at the beginning of spring with an all purpose balanced granular fertilizer, preferably organic. That’s the minimum. I also foliar feed my roses once or twice a month during their blooming and growing season with a seaweed and kelp liquid fertilizer.

Deadhead

Remove all spent blossoms as soon as possible. the general rule of thumb is to cut back to the first branch with 5 leaves. This helps keep rot and fungal disease out of the plants and encourages repeat blooming.

Prune Light and Prune Hard

During the spring and summer, roses can be lightly pruned at any time to control their shape. I tend to remove long canes that grow into paths or other plants. Cutting roses for the vase and deadheading is also a form of light and continuous pruning. 

In the winter, roses bushes go dormant, drop their leaves, and stop growing. This is the best time to give roses a hard prune, and on our farm, that timing is late December/early January. At this time, roses can be pruned hard, which will invigorate their growth in the next season. I cut all my roses down by about two thirds at this time, and remove any dead, diseased, weak or crossing canes. 

Although I do not generally wear gloves to garden, pruning roses is the exception, since the thorns can do serious damage. If you have a lot of roses to prune, I recommend getting rose gauntlets. I use this brand myself, and they have spared me considerable pain and injury. 


Fragrant Cloud Rose from Weeks Roses

Fragrant Cloud Rose from Weeks Roses

Rose Diseases & Pests

Everything likes roses, include bugs and diseases (and llamas, though that won’t be a problem for most people). Aphids and thrips are the insects I find most frequently eating my roses. I spray with insecticidal soap and neem, both approved for organic agriculture, when needed to keep them under control. I try to keep spraying at a minimum, and keep the sprays off of the actual rose flowers, to help protect the pollinators. Because I grow organically, I have to accept that this means my blooms may not all be perfect, but I find that very minimal spraying at the beginning of the season keeps insect pest pressure down enough for me to have an enjoyable and profitable rose harvest. 

Rose diseases are mostly fungal in nature, with black spot (black and yellow spots, would be a better description) being the strongest disease in my roses. Black spot is best prevented by planting roses in full sun with adequate air flow. Diseased leaves should be removed and not allowed to fall to the ground and collect, for that will further the fungal infection. There are many fungicide sprays available at any garden center to help control black spot, but keep in mind that once blossoms are sprayed with any fungicide, the blooms can no longer be used for culinary purposes. Neem can also help with fungal disease.

Here is a more detailed list of rose pests and diseases for reference with other problems.

Preparing  Roses for the Vase

To cut roses for arranging, it’s best to collect them early in the morning, after an evening irrigation, so they are filled with water and plump. I cut and place roses directly into water bucket, since they dehydrate very quickly and then stick them in cold storage to chill. Your refrigerator will do just fine. 

Cut roses ideally when the sepals have pulled back, but the petals have not yet started to unfurl. Roses can be cut at more mature stages of bloom, but will not last as long in the vase. Once the outermost petals have started to brown, it is generally too late to cut the flower. 

Once a stem has been cut, remove the outer guard petals to allow the bloom to expand freely. Also remove thorns from the stem, and any or all foliage, especially leaves that might be submerged in water.

Assorted Rose Bouquet

Assorted Rose Bouquet