Ornamental PlantsPlant Care Instructions

Struggling with Roses? Read the Directions and Try Again

September in the rose garden can be the most satisfying of the season as all your summer ministrations come to fruition in spectacular fall bloom. The water and fertilizer you provided produce huge cooler-weather blooms that have substantive petals and the most vibrant colors of the rose year.

If you’ve fallen down on the job, however, early fall can be very discouraging when your plants have few leaves, the flowers are small and the rose bed is a general mess. I’ve been there! It’s that proofs-in-the-pudding time of year where the foibles of both plants and rosarians are laid bare for all the world to see.

Rather than vowing to give up roses for life, it’s a far, far better thing we do to consider that old proverb: If at first you don’t succeed, read the directions and try again. Roses aren’t hard to grow. They just have a few basic requirements that may take a little more time and effort than do geraniums or peonies. But with their season-long blooms, fabulous color in the garden, magnificent fragrant flowers to bring into the house and a big boost to your ego when all goes well. A fall garden, laden with the best flowers of the season on clean, healthy plants is a real achievement.

So don’t give up in despair, but make it an opportunity to evaluate each plant to see if it deserves to remain in your garden another year and take the time to gauge the effectiveness of your rose care regimens: watering, fertilizing and spraying.

And let’s be entirely fair; after a summer’s worth of pests and the increased disease pressure that comes along with late summer weather, it’s a darn fine rosarian who has perfect plants in his garden.

Assume for a moment that the roses are fairly healthy and doing well. This is the time I note all the varieties that I don’t like for one reason or another and mark them for shovel-pruning. That orange floribunda has flowers that finish in an ugly way. The blooms stay on the plant and turn brown before they fall off, rather than falling cleanly. And they really aren’t that pretty when they’re fresh. That plant is a goner. But that old red hybrid tea that never has a decent flower until fall is going to stay because those few fall flowers are big, spectacular and to die for. Plus I usually win a ribbon with that one at the fall rose show!

Blackspot is a constant fight on a couple of those older floribundas. I’ll keep one as a bellwether plant to warn me if I haven’t kept up with my spraying, but the others have to go because I can replace them with newer, more disease resistant varieties. That red and white striped floribunda has been growing strongly for nearly 20 years, but it’s never been one of my favorites. The flowers are too small, and the plant has some real tall canes and some real short canes, so the plant always looks out of balance. There are newer, better striped varieties now so I’ll replace that one, too.

That old hybrid tea I just love but has malingered along for a couple of years? Nothing seems to help it, so I’m going to buy a new plant of the same variety and get rid of the old, tired one. A couple of my favorite hybrid teas are very tender in my cold-climate garden. But I love them so much; I accept that they’ll probably croak over the winter and order a couple more for next spring. Same with tree roses; they’re so hard to winter over, that I just buy a new one every spring.

Mostly, however, it’s not the plants that are the problem, it’s the rosarian. But this year I have a great excuse. There was virtually no sun here in the Northeast for the first six weeks of summer.

Did I fertilize enough? Because roses grow and bloom all season, they need huge amounts of fertilizer. It’s important to use a liquid or water soluble fertilizer formulated specifically for roses. This provides all the nutrients and trace elements roses need to photosynthesize, grow and produce to their maximum potential. Fertilizing once a week isn’t too often, from early spring until late summer.

Did I add enough organic stuff to the soil? The addition of compost, composted manure, fish emulsion, liquid seaweed, kelp meal, ground crabshell, etc., keeps the good soil bacteria active. Organic fertilizers don’t provide enough food for roses, but they do provide the bacteria that break down fertilizer so the plants can use it. It’s really important to keep the soil active, so I try to add something once a month.

How about my spray regimen? Normally, I spray a fungicide, a miticide and an insecticide once every two to three weeks all season. It takes about an hour, because I have a huge garden, but the plants stay absolutely clean and healthy all season. No big deal. It’s easy.

Today’s pesticides are much safer to use than they used to be, but if you still don’t want to mess with spraying, buy some of the new disease-resistant varieties of roses. There are new ones being introduced every year, and next year’s new varieties are just terrific!

Ann Hooper is a certified American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian.

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