With roots tracing back over 30 million years, and cultivated since Babylon's hanging gardens, the rose as we know it came from Persia. The earliest use of roses as landscape plants in the U.S. began in the late 1800s. Hybrids from China and Japan were planted as hedges and snow breaks around Great Plains farmsteads. Their ability to survive in sub-zero temperatures made them a welcome and colorful addition.
Today there are thousands of roses in every hue, scented and unscented, thorny or smooth. Most bear blossoms in clusters, known as Floribundas. Hybrid Teas are bred for large showy single-stemmed flowers. Grandifloras can bloom in clusters or singly, and are tall vigorous-growing plants. The American Rose Society (ARS.org) is a wonderful source of everything rose.
I confess I have a passion for roses, with 19 in my own garden. There are quite a few that failed to survive me, and I have learned the hard way that they need special care to survive our mild winters.
Most of the US gets cold enough to force roses into an essential winter dormancy. Leaves drop off, and the plant recharges to re-bloom with renewed vigor. Our short, warm winters don’t force dormancy and many inexperienced gardeners like me let their roses continue to bloom. My second year, I had spindly rosebushes with pathetic blooms – a far cry from the first year's lush growth.
Fortunately, many nurseries offer free winter rose clinics, when it's time to force dormancy. Experts cover proper pruning, feeding and bed preparation. Call your favorite nursery to find out when clinics are offered. Whether you attend a clinic or go DIY, here are the smart steps to take in January to keep your roses beautiful throughout the year.
1. Plan your pruning
Pruning is mission critical for rose health. It removes diseased and damaged wood, leaving strong, healthy canes that will direct new growth and invigorate the plant. It should be done before buds swell, and requirements vary among rose types. Hybrid Teas, Grandifloras, and many Floribundas benefit from annual pruning in which three to five canes remain in a vase-shaped configuration, spaced equally around the bud union – the knobby base where canes emerge – leaving an empty center. Climbing roses require a different approach – consult with your nursery.
Inspect the bud union and canes coming from it. Identify the newest canes, which are the greenest, then the gray older canes. In young bushes, you may not yet have older canes. Older ones may need to be removed to allow for new growth.
2. Let there be air and light
New growth needs room. Cut off any canes that cross directly over the plant’s center. Remove any sucker growth coming from below the bud union, because it’s from the rootstock, not the rosebush. Next, cut out any canes that are crowding each other. The remaining canes are now your bush and ready to be pruned back.
3. Find the bud
Mentally divide each cane into three equal parts and remove the top one-third. If you’re lucky, one-third of the way down you’ll find a bud eye. Bud eyes are usually at the intersection of the cane and a five-leaflet, and there should be several along the cane. The preferred buds face out, which allows your rosebush to spread outwards. If you haven't found any bud eyes, then it's probably time to remove that cane.
4. Go bare
Remove pencil-sized or smaller twigs and stems. This allows in more light and gives room for next season's growth. Sealing cuts prevents cane borers from entering. They eat their way down the cane’s heart and kill it, and can continue chewing into the bud union. Our winters aren’t cold enough to kill them. Use a drop of white glue, which is non-toxic to children and animals. Strip off all remaining leaves, leaving a bare rosebush. This triggers dormancy.
5. Clean up
Remove all leaves, canes, weeds and debris to prevent your plant from catching fungus infections hidden in the debris or being attacked by bugs wintering in the old leaves when it starts to bloom. Don't bother to compost as canes don't decompose well, and the spores, eggs and other things in the mess survive composting efforts.
6. Spray & Feed
As added protection against wintering bugs, while dormant, spray the entire bush with a copper-based dormant spray, available at nurseries. Regular applications of rose systemic throughout the season, including winter, will further help protect and beautify your roses.
A final fun fact: where you prune your rose during the growing season will determine whether you get leaves or flowers. Cut back to a 5-leaflet, and you’ll get blooms growing out. Cut back to a 7-leaflet, and you’ll get a new branch.