For many people, roses are the highlight of the summer garden. For true rose aficionados, they’re the highlight of the gardening year, period. A bit fussier than forsythia or spirea, roses aren’t a plant-it-and-forget-it shrub. They need our help to stay healthy and gorgeous. What we do for our roses now sets them up to put on a spectacular summer show.
In warmer areas, roses are beginning to bloom now; further north, they’re still leafing out and forming flowers. The advice here applies pretty much everywhere, just not at the same time. Pick what works for the stage of growth your roses are at now.
If you haven’t already done so, clean up any of last year’s dead leaves and twigs around your roses. Rose detritus can be a host for blackspot and other diseases, so throw it away, don’t compost.
If you didn’t do a late winter pruning, carefully clip off any remaining dead twigs or branches, or any that are damaged or rubbing against each other.
Feed your rose. Those glorious blooms require a lot of nutrition, and roses are heavy feeders. Spread a balanced granular fertilizer on the ground around the plant. (You can also buy a fertilizer formulated just for roses.) Scratch it lightly into the ground, if the soil is loose enough. Don’t use too much fertilizer; it’s easy to overdo it. Use a light hand. Water the plant to wash the fertilizer into the soil.
Feed every two to four weeks with a diluted organic liquid fertilizer, which not only helps the plant but will encourage beneficial microbes in the soil. Apply according to the instructions on the bottle.
Mulch. Mulching around the plant will suppress weeds, hold in moisture, keep diseases from splashing up from the soil, and provide a neat, neutral backdrop to show off the blooms. You can use shredded bark, compost, shredded leaves, or pine needles. Apply only an inch or two; too much can be counterproductive by actually inhibiting the movement of water down to the soil.
Watch for pests. Aphids are the most common, and usually the first pests to appear. It’s relatively easy to carefully squish them or spray them off the plant with water. Ladybugs and their larvae (which don’t look anything like an adult ladybug; they look like tiny black and orange scorpions) eat aphids and should be encouraged.
Rose slugs are another pest. They aren’t slugs, but the larvae of sawflies. They are voracious eaters that skeletonize the leaves and can defoliate much of a plant. Look for them and squish them when you see them.
Japanese beetles eat the leaves and flowers and can do a lot of damage. They are slow, clumsy movers and fliers, and are easy to pick off and dispose of.
Make sure the plant has enough moisture, especially if rain is scarce. Be prepared to water thoroughly and deeply. Drip irrigation is ideal, but not always possible. Hand watering around the base of the plant is the next best thing. Don’t use overhead watering; while it’s convenient, it wets the foliage, and wet foliage is a breeding ground for disease.
Look out for blackspot. In some areas of the country, blackspot is inevitable. Catching it early helps keep it from spreading. Look for the telltale yellowing leaves and black spots, and carefully pull or clip those off the branches. Throw them away, as well as any leaves on the ground that might have fallen off the plant.
Powdery mildew leaves a dusty white or gray powder on the leaves. It doesn’t usually kill a shrub, but can reduce its vigor and is unsightly. To prevent it, allow for good air circulation around and through the rose and don’t use overhead watering.
Roses do take more work than many of the other plants in our gardens, but their glorious, show-stopping bloom is worth it.
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