THESE DAYS, I’m spending a good deal of time in my rose garden (pictured above, during summer), and feeling grateful that I do not use chemicals there. Too often gardeners resort to systemic poisons (like Bayer’s honey bee-killing “Rose & Flower Care”) in order to avoid the pests and diseases which target roses. But I have found that if hardy varieties are selected, and a sensible cultural routine is practiced, chemical controls are not necessary. And here are my time-tested tips for growing beautiful, healthy roses the organic way:
Select the right rose. I gave up on hybrid tea roses long ago. They hate the hot, humid summers here, and respond by getting every ailment known to botanists. David Austin’s English roses, on the other hand, have proven nearly disease-free for me, as have other sturdy shrub and climbing roses. Pictured above is the fragrant, sunshine-yellow ‘Graham Thomas’, which I’ve trained as a small climber. Rugosa roses are beautiful and extremely hardy too, although to my eyes they are not suitable in a formal setting.
Consider their real estate. To look their best, roses require at least a half day of sun, a free circulation of air to avoid mildew and black spot that thrive in damp close quarters, and freedom from competing tree roots.
Make the bed. Roses want loose, fertile soil that their feeder-roots can easily penetrate. Consequently it is essential to loosen the bed to a depth of 12 inches, and amend it with copious quantities of organic matter. My choice for organic matter is shredded leaves, which are free. Shredded leaves hold 80% of their weight in water — a real bonus during times of drought. The leaves also provide food for the earthworms which, through their movement, keep the soil well-aerated.
Plant in a big, big hole. “A one-dollar rose deserves a ten-dollar hole” is bit of old gardening wisdom which still rings true today. Dig the hole three times the diameter of the container the rose came in, and about 12 inches deep. Then fill the hole with water to test drainage. If the water drains within an hour, all is well. Otherwise, dig deeper. Roses want plenty of moisture, but they will not tolerate a pool at their feet.
In cold regions like mine, a rose must be set so its root graft — the knob on its “trunk” — is 2-3 inches beneath the soil surface. Where winters are mild, roses should be planted with the root graft an inch or two above the soil line.
Once the plant is in the ground, back fill with excellent, well-draining compost. Tamp this down with hands, not feet.
Water correctly. Provide at least one inch of water per week during the first spring and summer. Established roses can do with less water, but their roots should never be permitted to dry out. A water-stressed rose is the ideal target for pests and diseases. When I water, I set the garden hose at the base of the plant, and let it run slowly for 10-15 minutes. Splashing water and overhead sprinkling are rose no-no’s — they invite fungal problems.
Remember to Mulch. After planting, cover the soil with 3-4 inches of mulch. Here again, shredded leaves come to the rescue.
Provide Food. Roses are heavy feeders. My shrubs dine on Espoma’s “Rose Tone” — an organic fertilizer that contains beneficial microbes. I sprinkle a heaping cupful around the drip-line of each rose, and then scratch it into the top inch of soil with gloved fingers. One application is given monthly from April through July. Here in the Northeast, there is no need to fertilize after July.
Pruning. If you grow shrub roses, as I do, pruning is easy. Cut the shrubs back by one-third to one-half in late March. Climbing roses and ramblers require no pruning whatsoever, other than to remove dead canes.
Dead-Heading. The removal of spent blossoms, or “dead-heading,” encourages repeat bloom, and also keeps the plants looking tidy. Cut back to a set of five leaves, for it is from this point that new flowering growth will emerge.
Winter Protection. Although all of my roses are hardy in my zone 5-b region, I still give them winter protection after the first hard frost. To do this, I pour bushels of shredded leaves (obtained from autumn clean up) into the rose beds. Then I mound the material 12 inches up each shrub. The goal is to keep the soil cold, and the rose roots unstimulated during freak warm-spells in winter.
Organic Pest Control. A well-cared for rose can easily fend off almost any insect which comes to call. Should aphids appear, I simply blast the rose foliage with a firm spray of water, applied from both above and below. (The brass nozzle pictured above, which can be found in almost any hardware store or garden center, produces a powerful spray.) This aqua-blast dislodges the pests until the aphid-eating ladybugs appear. And they always do appear, because I do not use pesticides of any kind in my garden. Little green worms, which are usually the larvae of the saw-fly, also receive the water blast. Once knocked off, they can’t climb back up. Any which remain on the leaves are either paralyzed by braconid wasps, or gobbled up by birds.
And speaking of birds, it pays to encourage them to reside in your garden. I keep a bird-feeder right outside my writing-room window (above), which is only a few feet away from the yew hedge which surrounds my rose garden. The two fountains in the garden also encourage birds. These aviary predators flit among the roses, eating rose-hips in winter, and insects of all kinds in summer. Place a bird-bath near your roses, and believe me, your roses will enjoy better health.
Japanese Beetles. To my knowledge, there is no safe remedy for eradicating the Japanese beetles which emerge in early July and depart 30 days later. It seems that any spray which would kill these hard-shelled pests would kill beneficial insects, too. Traps are useless — they attract more beetles than they catch. Milky spore, if applied to lawn (that’s where the beetles lay their eggs), will kill the beetle larvae. Some years I pluck the beasts off my roses and then drop them into a jar of soapy water, while other years I have taken no action at all. Healthy roses always recover from beetle damage.
If you have any questions, comments, or tips concerning the organic culture of roses, by all means speak up. As always, I love to hear from you.
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