Many years ago, I decided to never use chemicals in my rose beds, nor anywhere else on this property. And today, when the roses are in bloom, I can freely eat their fragrant petals without fear of getting sick. Candied rose petals are delightful on this Queen Victoria Cake.
But we’re not discussing 19th-century tea-time treats today. Our topic is roses, and how to keep them in good health without resorting to systemic, honey-bee-killing pesticides. Maybe my all-organic rose-routine will be helpful to you:
Select the right rose. I gave up on hybrid tea roses long ago. They hate the hot, humid summers here, and respond by attracting every ailment known to botanists. On the other hand, David Austin’s “English” series roses 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 the real estate. Plant roses in an area that receives at least a half day of full sun. Also, make sure they have good air circulation. Crowded plants invariably attract fungal ailments like blackspot.
And speaking of blackspot…the treatment for this can be found in your refrigerator. Click here for details.
Make the bed. Roses want loose, fertile soil that their feeder-roots can easily penetrate. Loosen the bed to a depth of 12 inches, and amend it with copious quantities of organic matter. My first choice for organic matter? Shredded leaves. (Click here to discover how I gather and shred this free material.) Shredded leaves hold many times their weight in water — a real bonus during times of drought. They also provide food for earthworms. Worms, through their movement, keep the soil well-aerated.
Dig a big, big hole. “A one-dollar rose deserves a ten-dollar hole” is bit of old gardening wisdom that still rings true today. The hole should be three times the diameter of the container the rose came in, and about 12 inches deep. 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.
Position the root graft. 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, position the rose so its root graft is an inch or two above the soil line.
Back-Fill. Once the plant is in the ground, back-fill with rich, well-draining compost. Tamp the compost down by hand, not foot.
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. Water-stressed roses are pest-and-disease magnets. When I water, I set the garden hose at the base of the plant, and let it run slowly for 5-10 minutes. Splashing water and overhead sprinkling are definite no-no’s — they invite fungal problems.
Is your garden equipped with automatic drip-irrigation? You are lucky indeed.
Remember to Mulch. After planting, cover the soil with 3-4 inches of mulch. Here again, I rely on shredded leaves.
Provide Food. Roses eat the same way I do: heavily! I let them 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. In my region, roses are fed monthly from April through July.
Pruning. If you grow shrub roses, as I do, spring pruning is easy. Just 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. To encourage repeat bloom, and also to keep plants tidy, remove spent blossoms. Be sure to cut the rose stem back to a set of five leaves –the point from which 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 un-stimulated, 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 is available in every hardware store. It produces a powerful spray.) This aqua-blast dislodges aphids until 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 that remain will either be paralyzed by braconid wasps, or gobbled up by birds.
Invite the birds. In winter, I keep a well-stocked bird-feeder right outside my writing-room window (above). The window is only a few feet away from the yew hedge that surrounds my roses. 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 plants will enjoy better health.
Japanese Beetles. Do these horrid creatures visit your garden, too? Where I live, the JBs emerge in early July and depart 30 days later. Birds won’t eat them, and any spray that would kill them would kill beneficial insects, too. Traps are useless — they attract more beetles than they catch. Milky spore, if applied to the lawn (beetles lay their eggs there), will kill the beetle larvae. Fortunately, healthy roses always recover from Japanese beetle damage.
If you have 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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