The Organic Way to Beautiful Roses

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.

Make a saucer. It is important, after planting, to make a saucer around the plant. The saucer serves as a reservoir for water until the plant is established.

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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Related Posts:
Boxwood Beauty the Easy Way
My Favorite Roses
Rosa Zephirine Droughin – Fragrant & Thornless


  1. Black spot…what to do! I’ve cleaned up the debris, but I’m still concerned. I have a very large heirloom climbing rose–Sally Holmes–and I don’t want to loose it. Even though there is vigorous new growth, leaves are still falling off the plant. Suggestions?

  2. Suzanne – If you can, try to improve air-circulation around your rose. Black spot thrives in damp, close quarters.

    Meanwhile, spray the rose with a mixture of one part baking soda to 20 parts water. This organic black spot treatment has been used by many gardeners.

  3. I love your website/blog….and by love i mean i am devouring it in such a way as i would intend to devour your french pastries if ever i had the opportunity to do so. i love this site! I am an organic gardener, an ameteur of sorts, although i’ve been doing it this way with great success for 23 years off and on depending on the real estate. But since we’ve been here on our 10 acre farm on the Pacific coast of Oregon (15 miles inland…just right for gardening) i am devoted for the past 10 years. And i grow roses organically too. I too love…and by that, i mean again–the pastries–David Austin English roses. They are prolific in every way and they smeeell so delicious and are just pain free. Love them! I also am a writer and I owned a very small coffee shop/bakery/cafe until recently where i made my own pastries and traditional capuccinos (which i also loooove) but had to give it up as my children also need me. I have four at home and they are so wonderful that they truly deserve to have a parent in the house it was decided. Anyway, i just had to introduce myself and tell you how happy i am to meet you! I’ll be back again…happy gardening :]

  4. “The beetles will devour your neighbors’ gardens, and leave yours alone. Otherwise, do what I do, and pluck off the beasts and drop them in a jar of soapy water. Or, do nothing at all. The beetles arrive in early July and depart at some point in August. Healthy roses always recover from their leaf-skeletonizing attacks.”
    Kevin every year we get scores of Japanese Beetles. I figure part of it is the wild grapevines that surround our country yard. I try to pick them off but last year it was a full time job. They ate the top leaves of my pole beans and I picked them off as I could. But they also start on my rose buds and eat them down to a nub if I don’t catch them in time. I was thinking of sprinkling diatomaceous earth on the buds to fend them off. Hopefully the bees would not be interested in the closed bud and would wait for blooms? Would this be bad? The moles just can’t keep up with their grubs I guess.

  5. Does it matter what types of leaves you use? I live in central FL (zone 9B (old), aone 10a (new)). I have lots of oak leaves, but they are rather acidic, if I understand correctly. Will the acidity negatively affect the roses? THanks!

    Also, I’ve heard of using a mixture of coffee grounds and eggshells to ward off pests. Any opinion about that?

  6. Meeri – Nice to meet you. So glad you like this site, the French pastries, and David Austin roses!

    Marilyn — The Japanese beetles absolutely devastated my roses for 4 Julys in a row. Frankly, I was tempted to cut off every rose bud the moment it formed. But the shrubs always recovered fully by late August, and they bloomed and bloomed until the first hard frost. And last year I had no JBs at all. I’m not sure why. Maybe my neighbors are using the traps?

    Concerning diatomaceous earth, I don’t know if this would have any effect if sprinkled on rose blossoms. Milky spore, however, if applied to lawn (that’s where JBs lay their eggs), will definitely kill the JB larvae.

    Nikki – Shredded oak leaves are perfect for roses, since roses enjoy a slightly acidic soil. (Actually, they care more about the soil’s texture and fertility than its pH.) As for coffee grounds and egg shells, I wouldn’t hesitate to add these to the garden. It has been reported that coffee grounds will keep flea beetles off tomato seedlings. And egg shells, because they are sharp, can kill slugs.

  7. Happy earth day Kevin, thank you for making the earth a more beautiful and healthier space!

  8. Although I have seen very few Japanese beetles since treating the yard with Bt some years ago, those that do show up are picked off the roses in the morning before they warm up & are fed to the frogs in the little pond. I can’t imagine how the frogs enjoy their picky-legged breakfast, but they seem to do so.

  9. Hey Kevin:

    We routinely cut off all the roses when the Japanese beetles hit in June-July, feed the roses a bit and wait the beetles out. Without the roses to attract them, they move on.

    When you have time, check out the roses developed by Dr. Griffith Buck in Iowa – they are terrific, low-care shrub roses that thrive in the mid-Atlantic.

    Finally, some rain!

  10. Noelle Imparato says:

    Hi Kevin. Happy Earth Day and thanks for all your great advices. Love your site.
    My question: Can I use Magnolia leaves, and how can I shred them?

  11. I would like a rose that is a climber, but keeps blooming, not just one flush of blooms. I bought a New Dawn that I had read bloomed all summer, I have had it for years and it blooms once in spring. Thank you.

  12. Kevin, I love your blog and all your pictures. Keep up the good work.

  13. Hi Kevin,
    Love your site! Thank you for the information, inspiration and motivation! I’m in zone 5b – am I too late to cut back my rose by a third?

  14. Does anyone grow Drift roses? I am looking for a low grower and I love the pictures of these, especially the double pink. I am wondering because they seem too good to be true that they are not very appealing.

  15. I agree, a bird feeder is the best aphid and green worm control, although it took a while before the birds started to come regularly. I am lucky enough to have a skunk living under my garden shed, since he has been around I hardly get any japanese beatles since s\he eats them when they are in the grub phase in the ground. Being a city dweller the other advantage to having th skunk is that dog owners walk their dogs on the other side of the street, thereby keeping the roses in the front garden safe from an unwanted organic spray!

  16. against blackspot it is helpfull to plant alliums (garlic or onions or chives) around the roses. It takes 2-3 years for them to have an effect, but evenrtually it makes a difference.

  17. I feed my roses with a mixture of ground alfalfa and water. I had to buy a 40 lb. bag at the feed store about 5 years ago (that was the smallest size they had) I mix 1 cup in a 5 gallon buckets of water and let it sit for a week or 2, stirring a few times as I walk by. It can get a bit stinky, so I usually do my mixing concoction away from the house. I feed each rose bush about a quart of this mixture in the spring when I see leaves emerging. I feed about every 6 weeks and stop feeding when the JB’s show up and when it gets really hot here in North Carolina. I still see a little black spot because it can get really hot and humid here, but it is reduced with my alfalfa tea mixture. I’m not sure what is in the alfalfa, but my roses sure like it!!

  18. I see where you are suggesting using milky spore in the lawn. Can I spread this over my vegetable garden, which is also organic?

  19. Beth – Yes, you can. Milky spore is not a chemical, nor is it harmful to people or pets. You can use it in your vegetable garden and even around pools and wells.

  20. I use alfalfa pellets as well. I don’t make a tea. I just put a scoop around base of each bush a couple of times per season. I first saw this at the Eugene Rose Garden near the U of Oregon.

  21. My family LOVE rosehip tea. I have moved into a new house, and there are 3 rose bushes that have somehow survived 3 years of neglect (the house stood empty, waitig to be sold, for quite some time). I put some mulch around them, but am not really doing much to them.

    So, my question is this: How do you get rosehips, and when do you harvest them?

    I haven’t dead-headed, because that would mean cutting off the rosehips. I have, however, gathered rose petals directly from the flowers on the bush, to dry them out for use in teas, potpourri and the like. Will this work?

    What do you recommend for we folk who want to consume our roses?

  22. Michelle – Rosehips are the seed pods of roses. They are sweetest when harvested after the first fall frost. To harvest the hips, let the last blossoms of summer remain on the plant. Once the flower petals wither and drop, you can harvest the hips.

    You mentioned that your house was vacant for three years. Hopefully your roses were neither sprayed nor fed with systemics during that time. The hips of roses which have been treated with chemical pesticides or fungicides are not safe to consume in any form.

  23. Janet G. Metzger says:

    What beautiful gardens! And thank you for the step-by-step instructions. I will forward.

  24. Judy Pennington says:

    Kevin, my aunt and uncle lived it NW Arkansas and he had the most beautiful, fragrant roses I ever saw. He put all their coffee grounds and tea leaves on the base of his rose bushes and they apparently loved it!

  25. My roses are getting white lacy marks all over the leaves and starting to look unhealthy. Not really sure what causes this condition and how to treat it. Do you have advice on how to correct the problem? They are yellow Knockout Roses. Thanks!

  26. Hello: I read the post about black spots on the rose leaves. I remove the affected leaves. Give a good shower or bath with water dashed with a few drops of dish soap, and add a some bleach. Let set for a few hours then rinse. I have done this for many plants with success. As long as you rinse for a while afterwords your fine. The bleach kills the black mold, and the few drops of dish liquid gives your rose bush leaves a high shine. The problem with roses is they do not like there roots wet all the time. It causes black mold on the leaves. It usually is not a good idea to put roses on an automatic drip system for this reason.

    Hope this helps. Linda

  27. Making Roses Bloom:

    There are many types of roses. Some bloom for only a few weeks in the spring. Others bloom twice a year. Some like the Knock out Rose bloom all summer long. When we moved we had a rose bush out front. It didn’t bloom for years. After searching on the internet some one told me to feed the rose bush blood from hamburger and roast beef. Water it down and feed to the roots. It worked. We were loaded with roses that year. Also if you trim your rose bush down to far you may not get any roses the next year. Some rose bushes only bloom on last years growth.

    Happy Gardening!


  28. I enjoyed reading about your roses. Have you tried Old Garden Roses from the 1800’s?. They are available and bloom wonderfully and are very disease resistant. D.Austin based his roses and hybridized his from the Old Garden Roses. Roses such as Souvenir de la Malmaison’ a Bourbon from 1843 and ‘Joasine Hanet’ HP 1847 are examples of wonderful roses. Look at the Heritage Roses Foundation website to learn more about these roses. If someone wants climbing roses that bloom all year long, and they live in the west or south, I recommend Cl. Pinkie – an Earthkind rose – disease free Polyantha rose. ( I have no experience with this rose in the Northern areas). Magnificant blooms cover the arbor above my 16 ft.garage door. ( and very few thorns!) The OGR roses usually smell wonderfully, most bloom continually, and are very disease resistant in California.
    I would suggest to some readers looking for climbers to look at Noisette roses tht will climb into trees and were bred in So. Carolina in the early 1800’s. ( Champney’s Pink Cluster and Alistar Stella Gray are two roses that I have climbing into my neighbor’s Cypress trees and bloom among the green pine needles – she loves seeing the blooms up high on her side of the fence).

  29. Your very same English rose picture appears on today’s crossword puzzle answers!

  30. Elfrieda Tullar says:

    My favorite climber is Don Juan — gorgeous deep red, with a lovely fragrance. I live on the east coast of Florida, with hot and humid summers, wnich doesn’t seem to bother this rose, even the salty air, as I’m two blocks from the ocean! This rose climbs an arbor in my front yard, and I’m always getting comments on it’s beauty.

  31. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    I know that rose saying as “A Ten Dollar Hole for a Ten Cent Rose”. Same result…

    I have 4 gigantic roses which all began from cuttings taken at a local cemetery, known for its vast collection of antique varieties: Felecite et Perpetue, Madame Plantier, Crimson Rambler (swallowing my shed) and an unnamed pink-fading-to-purple climber which is my favorite. The rosarian, Rev. Doug Seidel, gave our Master Gardener group a walking tour with the histories of each rose almost 20 years ago, and I am still impressed remembering it. For rose care, I handpick pests whenever I see them. I add my own compost to the base. I prune judiciously and sit back to enjoy the show.
    So much good information in this post! Thank you.

  32. I understand you can take cuttings of roses and am trying that….so why do the garden centers sell grafted roses?? Am I wasting time trying to grow cuttings?

  33. Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited this site before but after going through a few of the articles I realized it’s
    new to me. Nonetheless, I’m certainly pleased I discovered it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking
    back often!

  34. I plant Four O’Clocks around the yard, especially near the roses. Japanese beetles love Four O’Clocks, but they are toxic to the beetle. I rarely see Japanese beetles except dead in my mailbox.

  35. Kevin – love your website – great great information, even though you are in the Northwest and I am in the Southwest – southern california.

    My major complaint is grasshoppers – what is a good way to get rid of those pests – and don’t say pick them off cuz they freak me out! and most of the time I don’t see them just their damage.


  36. We applied milky spore last fall and are hoping that there is a reduction of Japanese Beetles. We also get skunk that dig for grubs but they make a terrible mess digging up the mulch. We get a lot of racoons that do an awful lot of damage and dig up plants and make the ground look like it was rototilled. In the above comments, baking soda and water and milk and water were mentioned to aid in controlling black spot. Is one better to use than the other? Can you do one method one time and another another time? Love your information and photos.

  37. It was really cool to see how you actually manage your roses by paying close attention to the cycle of pest-and-predator.

  38. Dear Kevin,

    I am so happy I came across your website! Thank You! I grow an organic garden on my terrace (zone 10 I believe). This year was a harsh winter with many things going on all at once. Last summer my husband gave me a New Dawn Rose bush (it’s a climber), which is still in it’s original container. Due to the many stressors that occurred this year, I was not able to put burlap or even to get mulch to cover it. I have read different things about roses – don’t prune for a few years, prune, etc. The only think I did was to Prune. I have a flowering plant that represents each of my family members (their favorite flower). This particular Rose bush represented my father, who was extremely ill. It survived and is thriving, even beginning to blossom! Today Yesterday I noticed some gray spots on the lower leaves. I have no idea what to use. My little garden is purely organic in nature, and I understand these roses are edible as well very beautiful and fragrant. Any advice would be greatly appreciated as this particular rose and the symbolism it holds for me is extremely precious. I have never used anything other than kelp to fertilize any of my plants. I have also never used any pesticides. I am very new to growing. I do not know if I need to repot this rose… In other words I could really use some guidance here!
    Many Thanks for Your Wonderful Site, and Any Words of Wisdom You Can Impart,

  39. Hi Kevin,
    I really appreciate you’re plain language discussing the care of roses, a plant I enjoy, but I seriously don’t know what I am doing. I have droopy blooms, but this year my pink climbing rose have doubled since last year. I am excited about that, my leaves are looking good, meaning no yellow spots or black spots. When you say dead head, do you mean to clip the entire head off, or from the stem. Thank-You for responding in advance

  40. Hi Gloria – Leaf clusters on roses come in sets of 3, 5, and sometimes 7 leaves. When removing a dead blossom (deadheading), cut down to a set of 5 leaves. It is from this point that new flowering growth will emerge. Happy gardening to you!

  41. I USED YOUR MILK FORMULA ON MY HYBRID TEA ROSES AND IT WORKED GREAT/I AM ON A WEEKLY SPRAY/WE LIVE IN FLORENCE SC AND MY GIRLS/(THAT is what i call my roses) do not like this intense heat but i cut “granpa” (my 25 yr old hybrid tea double delight) and he has come back beautifully. thanks so much for your advice

  42. How do you go about buying David Austin roses. I have sent off of a catalog but never received it.

  43. hi. Looking for a little help. I am a very new rose grower in northern B.C. We have a serious problem in our area with deer. I planted a nice climber this year, sweated as per directions. It was doing beautifully!! Had many strong healthy shoots, I was very excited. Until yesterday, when I found the protective wire cage I planted around and over my new beauty had been trampled and most of the leaves and new shoots had been devoured. I don’t know what to do to help it recover, or if I can do anyting at all. We have a short but very intense growing season here, 20 hrs of daylight right now, I just don’t know if it can recover before fall. Our area is listed as a zone 3, but in our little micro climate, I can easily grow things for zone 5. Thanks for any advice you may have.

  44. Hi Lola – Roses are perennial. Provide adequate food and water, and your plant should recover. As for critter protection, you might want to spray the entire plant with deer-repellent. Good luck!

  45. I purchase directly from their website. They have a list of local garden centers that carry their roses as well. I have also purchased from heirloom roses and as they both sell own root which is better for our harsh mn winters…


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