On the Care and Feeding of Roses

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


Rosa ‘Carefree Sunshine’ is disease resistant and blooms all summer

Roses resemble human teenagers. They’re prickly when you try to guide them, holding you close part of the time, and then, abruptly, pushing you away.

I probably make this comparison because I’ve raised two children and still have two in their teens. Trust me, they are the most precious flowers in my garden, but they often make me pay for such beauty.

So, how can we best care for them?

Mulch. In fall, I tuck all of my plants in for winter with a blanket of mulch, paying particular care to the roses. I prefer shredded leaves because they compost quickly and make the soil even more fertile and friable. However, any organic mulch, including pine straw, will do.


Gather pine straw for mulch


Pruning. Before everything leafs out in spring, I spend a couple of weeks pruning. However, I wait until after the climbers have bloomed to prune them. Since I live in the middle south, I generally prune mid-February, but there have been years when I’ve pruned later, and all was well.

To prevent disease, pruning shears must be sharp and clean. In the photo below, I used Fiskars new and very sharp Quantum™ Bypass Pruner. I like the smooth action of the Quantum™ tools. For larger canes, I employ the 23-inch Quantum™ lopper. It’s small enough to reach the center of a rosebush without becoming unwieldy in a tight space. Don’t be intimidated by pruning. Roses are tough, and like our children, forgive parental missteps. In milder areas of the country, strip any leaves that remain from winter. Then, remove all dead or dying canes. For live canes, hold pruners at a slant or angle and snip above the swelling bud.


With Fiskars Quantum™ Bypass Pruners, prune a live cane at an angle above the bud


Food and Water. Roses are difficult only because no advice holds consistently true from year to year - at least, not in my part of the world. Seasons and climates change, and gardeners are at the mercy of their environment. We must hold onto what we know and keep learning.


‘Baronne Prevost’ is a pink heirloom rose worth growing because it is long lived


A quote I love from English gardener, Carol Klein: “I never feed my plants. I feed the soil because it’s the soil that feeds the plants.”

This is wisdom. If you nurture your soil, it will care for your plants.

Plant new roses in full, or nearly full, sun. This may seem obvious, but roses need sunshine to produce more flowers and increase their resistance to disease. At planting time and in March, I feed the soil with a natural fertilizer. Since I grow more than 90 roses, I have a system to know which roses have been fed. After I scratch the feed into the ground, I place fresh mulch, like cottonseed hulls or more shredded leaves, on top.  At a glance, I can tell which roses still need some tender loving care. In summer, when the entire garden suffers from heat stress, I spray an organic, foliar fertilizer in the morning. This gives leaves a chance to dry. Compost tea also works. The roses seem to appreciate it – as much as difficult teenagers ever seem to appreciate anything.


Roses and peonies make great partners in the early summer/late spring garden


Prevent disease. Your best safeguard is to choose disease resistant cultivars. I’m fond of many roses, including ‘Carefree Beauty,’ ‘The Fairy,’ ‘Perle d’Or’ and ‘Marie Daly,’ all of which carry the Earth-Kind® designation from the Texas A&M AgriLife Center. I also like Pink Drift® (Rosa ‘Meijocos’) and OSO Easy® Paprika.

To prevent disease, try these additional tips:

  • Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses instead of sprinklers. Roses want dry leaves.
  • Don’t group plants too close together.
  • Apply a good mulch to keep disease spores from multiplying in soil.
  • In fall, remove any dead leaves. Also, do this in summer if your rose loses leaves to blackspot or other diseases.
  • Don’t compost any rose canes or leaves. Dispose of them otherwise.

You don’t have to spray.  I stopped spraying my roses with anything other than lime or sulphur in early spring and Neem oil occasionally.


The climbing rose Cecile Bruner is another heirloom


Sadly, we must also discuss Rose Rosette Disease. This problem, which is showing up in many gardens, is disastrous. Although I removed any roses in my garden with the disease, some rosarians suggest you may be able to cut diseased canes at the base of the plant to stop infection. So far, I’ve been too worried about my other roses to do this. One way RRD spreads is by microscopic, wingless, Eriophyid mites. There is no cure for RRD. Watch for witch’s brooms and red foliage that looks strange and never becomes green when mature. If you find and remove an infected plant, try to get all of the roots. The infection will not remain in the soil, but can be spread to roses from root to root.


Roses should be planted with other perennials and annuals in a mixed garden


Just like young people, roses are social. They don’t want to grow alone. They flourish when planted with shrubs and grasses. They want low growing annuals and perennials to cover their bare knees. Don’t be afraid to pair them with other plants, but buy disease resistant cultivars that don’t mind confined quarters.

Growing roses and raising teenagers are not for the timid. Both can be quite tricky, but pay close attention to their needs, and they will, one day, burst forth into flower. There is nothing like a rose garden, or a high school graduation in spring.