With thousands of cultivars – and a reputation for sharpness – roses can be a daunting plant to introduce to your garden. To take the prickle out of the process, we asked a rose aficionado to answers some of the most common questions
Words: Greg Loades
Photography: Kim Lightbody
For all their beauty and familiarity, roses are perhaps the most misunderstood garden plants of all. Few plants are as shrouded in myths and misconceptions. Then there is the age-old question of whether or not they are currently ‘in fashion’. Don’t let any of this get in the way of the truth: roses are a gloriously diverse, generous, aromatic, characterful group and they can become a treasured centrepiece in so many different styles and sizes of garden. Modern varieties can be healthy and free-flowering, and many disease-prone, sparse-flowering hybrids have been superseded by some incredibly good-looking and long-lasting plants. This means more flowers for longer and less worry about whether a rose is going to be brought down by pests or poor health. There really has never been a better time to grow roses.
Should I buy potted or bare-root roses?
There are two ways to buy roses: in pots or as bare-root plants. Bare-root roses are only available from autumn to early/mid-spring and are sold with their roots wrapped in a bag or hessian cloth, rather than in pots. They are fresh young plants that are usually quicker to establish than potted roses, and can be cheaper. There also tends to be more choice of bare-root varieties available, but they should be planted straight away in winter/early spring. Potted roses can be bought and planted all year round, although cool conditions in spring or autumn are preferable.
How deep should I plant the rose?
This is the most common rose-planting question and different gardeners have different answers. In my experience, it is best to plant roses so that the bulky part where the stems join the roots (referred to as the ‘union’ or the ‘knuckle’) is just below soil level (3-5cm is a good depth). This will keep the plant well anchored in the ground and help to stop it from drying out. Roses planted with this bulky bit above the soil are prone to rocking around in the wind, which will inhibit their growth, and the roots can dry out very quickly in warm spells. Bear in mind that the soil will sink a bit after planting, so check a week or so later and spread more soil around the base of the plant if the union is exposed.
Any tips for planting?
Whether planting a bare-root or potted rose, the technique is the same. First, make sure that the plant is well-watered beforehand – for bare-root roses, soak in a bucket of water for at least a couple of hours before planting.
Dig a hole to the appropriate depth (see above) and at least as wide as the rose’s roots. Break up the soil at the base of the planting hole with a digging fork. Sprinkle in some mycorrhizal fungi granules – this helps the rose create a secondary root system, ensuring a healthier, more drought-tolerant plant.
If your soil is light (sandy rather than clay) or full of stones, mix two spadefuls of well-rotted compost into the soil that you have dug out for the planting hole (which you will use to fill the hole when planting the rose). This will help the soil hold on to moisture.
Once the plant is in the hole and you’ve backfilled with soil, spread a 5cm layer of well-rotted compost or farmyard manure around the base of the plant to help keep roots damp and increase soil fertility (this applies to all soil types).
It’s best not to rely on rainfall when a rose has just been planted. Give it a good soak at the base until puddles start to form and repeat again during dry spells in the first year after planting.
Do I need to prune my rose?
Not pruning at all tends to create leggy, woody plants that lack vigour, so pruning is definitely recommended – but the amount you chop off is entirely up to you! Rose pruning can be made into a very complicated performance of diagrams and advice including searching stems for outward-facing buds, but there is no need for this. If you are growing a rose as a shrub in the garden, just cut each stem back as far as you want, depending on how tall you want the plant to be.
The best time to prune roses is at the end of January (except for ramblers). If it’s left until later (many old books suggest March) then the plant may already be in full leaf, so lots of lush new growth will be chopped off and the plant will have to start from scratch again. This will delay flowering.
For climbers, in winter, chop out stems that are weak and spindly and any that are growing in the wrong place (outside of their supports) or growing into the path of other stems. Again, chop back the other stems if you want the plant to be shorter, to your preference. If the stems are trained horizontally, snip back the side shoots that are coming from the main stems back by two-thirds.
Rambling roses (taller than climbers, with sprays of small flowers, normally in one flush in summer) are treated slightly differently. These are best pruned after flowering in summer, cutting side shoots back by half and removing a few very old stems and wayward ones that can’t be trained where you want them to grow.
Are roses difficult to look after?
One of the biggest myths is that they’re prone to disease and tricky to grow. This may have been close to the truth 40-odd years ago, but in recent years so many healthy, long-flowering varieties have been made available to gardeners that it is no longer the case. That being said, a few simple steps can help to give a little extra polish to their appearance.
Probably the most important piece of maintenance that can be done to keep a rose healthy is to make sure that none of last year’s leaves are lying around when the plant starts to produce new shoots in late winter and early spring. If these leaves are still on the plant and have blackspot (little dark brown blotches on the leaves that look like an ink drop) they can infect the new growth. With so many recent winters being mild, many roses are reluctant to drop their leaves until well into the new year and mild winter days can bring roses into new growth surprisingly early. Pruning may get rid of all the old leaves, but if not, pull them off by hand. It’s quite therapeutic! If you do see a rose with some diseased leaves, no amount of spraying will cure them. The only thing that can be done is to pick them off or cut off the stem back to clean growth.
Aphids will invariably congregate on shoot tips or flower buds, especially on plants growing in a very sunny part of the garden. Gently flicking the buds with your finger and thumb seems to dislodge enough to stop them doing any lasting damage, or you can blast them off with a hose. A more holistic solution is to encourage ladybirds into the garden. A wild corner of nettle and grass can be a ladybird haven.