Everything you need to know about growing roses but were afraid to ask

Submitted a year ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

There are some great roses out there!

My grandmother and mom grew roses, even though their roses were often plagued by bugs and diseases. But in recent years the rose industry has produced a number of carefree roses that anyone with 6 hours of sunshine and even a slightly green thumb can grow.

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 Probably the first place to start a quest for a great rose would be at a good family-run garden center. Find the rose expert there, and ask about good varieties for your area. In general, fragrant roses tend to attract Japanese beetles and other insect pests. I personally like the ‘Knock Out” rose series. These roses are highly disease resistant and, in my experience, they attract few pest bugs –most do not have fragrance. There are other disease-resistant varieties, of course.

Double Knockout rose

 If you live in a cold place where winters reach minus 25 or more, I’d look at the Canadian Explorer series of roses. These were developed in Ottawa, Canada and include those tough rugosa roses in their gene pool. Rugosa roses are also called beach roses, since they often grow in pure sand on the dunes of Cape Cod and elsewhere.

A good resource for selecting and maintaining problem-free roses is a book I like very much, Roses for New England: A Guide to Sustainable Rose Gardening by Mike and Angelina Chute. This book is full of information relevant to New England gardeners, and reading it would be a good way to educate yourself about roses. It reinforces what I have learned about roses over the years – and taught me some things I didn’t know.

So what do roses want? Good soil with a slightly acidic pH, plenty of sunshine, soil that is slightly moist all the time, a little fertilizer, and someone who loves them and is willing to pull off the beetles and drown them. 

The soil that roses want is a good loam amended with compost. Dig a hole that is about two and a half feet wide and 18 inches deep. Keep half the soil and mix it with an equal amount of compost in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp.

Fragrant bush rose

You could send away a soil sample to determine the soil pH and to see what minerals are deficient, though that might take a few weeks before you get a response. Or you could just go to your local garden center and buy a kit for testing soil pH. Much of New England has acidic soil, but roses like something in the range of 6.0 to 6.8 – slightly acidic.

You can improve your soil pH by mixing in limestone (which is available in bags at your garden center). Mixing in a cup per rose is a good start, depending on your soil pH. I knew a rosarian who always buried a 4 inch square scrap of Sheetrock (wallboard) beneath each rose to provide calcium and improve soil pH over time. A cup of bone meal or rock phosphate at planting time will add phosphate, a mineral that roses need.

Roses need sunshine to do well, the more the better. The Chute’s book taught me that if you have to choose morning sun or afternoon sun, go for morning sun. That way the dew dries up more quickly – and fungal diseases, which love wet leaves, are minimized naturally. Six hours of sun is considered adequate, but the Chutes mention that roses with fewer petals need less sun to bloom.

I have a rose right near my front door – and the hose that is connected there. It has bloomed well for decades, in part, because every time I fill a bucket, wash the car or use the hose, I give the rose a nice drink. Roses love water. I have a watering wand on the hose so that I can direct water to its base, and not wet the leaves. In dry summers watering roses is key. How much? At least 5 gallons per week for a mature rose.

This rose is near the hose, so it gets regular watering

I rarely fertilize my roses, but the Chute’s book says that fertilizing regularly increases blooming. I might try a couple of applications of an organic liquid fish fertilizer this summer. Be aware that too much fertilizer pushes fast growth that is more susceptible to diseases and insect damage.

What else should you consider when selecting roses? I like roses grown on their own roots, not grafted onto root stock. If the plant dies down to the soil over winter, a rose will sometimes send up shoots from the roots, which are different from the rose you planted if you buy grafted roses.

Also read the tag carefully to see if it is a one-time bloomer each season, or a re-bloomer. Some roses like the Knock-Out roses bloom for most of the summer. Be sure to cut off blossoms after flowering to encourage more blossoms.

Finally, now is the season to cut off any brown, dead portions on stems – most roses suffer a little winter damage. Cut above an emerging leaf.

I’m an organic gardener which means I don’t spray my roses, not for fungal diseases, not for insect pests. I firmly believe that if you have a rose in good soil with good sunshine and adequate water, your roses will be healthy and not attract many insects. 

Have you had success with a particular rose? Let us know by clicking on the comment section below. 

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