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Marin IJ Articles

What to look for when buying bareroot roses

  • Nanette Londeree
  • If you’ve stopped in at your local nursery or home improvement center lately to check out the roses advertised for sale, you may be a bit perplexed by what you find. Rather than healthy plants covered with voluptuous blooms, you face a veritable sea of lifeless looking, brown sticks wrapped in plastic and adorned with a picture of a sumptuous rose in bloom. Don’t be put off by the rose’s winter appearance. Instead, join the legions of American gardeners that purchase nearly 60 million rose plants a year and buy them bareroot—you’ll get a much better selection and big savings to boot.

    Bareroot roses are dormant plants with all foliage and soil removed. The plants were harvested in the fall full of starch reserves that provide energy as they emerge from dormancy. They are light and transportable, easier to handle and plant, and generally less expensive. Dormant plants are available beginning in early winter, so you can get started planting earlier. They make a slower and better-paced transition into life in your garden as the season ramps up, adjusting without any transplant trauma.
    Like making any purchase, it’s good to know a few key things to look for. Before you head out to shop, think about where you want to plant the rose and the general size, shape and color you’re looking for. There are thousands of varieties of roses on the market, so doing a bit of homework can help you select the right rose for your planting situation. Once armed with your rose wish list and ready to shop, focus on the quality of the plant and its health when choosing plants to purchase.
    Bareroot roses are graded according to the quality of their growth, their size once they leaf out and bloom and their productivity. Over fifty years ago, the American Association of Nurserymen, in association with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), developed grading standards for budded field-grown garden roses in order to standardize rose sizes and to eliminate the outrageous claims made by some retailers at the time. There are three grades: #1, #1 ½, and #2. The grades identify the number and caliper (diameter) of canes on each type of rose. Specifications for Grade #1 require the bush to have at least three strong canes 5/16 inch in caliper or greater, branched not higher than 3 inches from the bud union (grafting point); all should have a well-developed root system. Grade #1 is the best; plants of this grade generally cost more than those of lower grades. While all grades will eventually grow to the same size for the variety of rose, it will take longer for the lower grades as they start with fewer, smaller canes.
    Many nurseries and garden centers set their bareroot plants in damp peat moss or similar material that retains moisture. This allows you to inspect the entire plant before you buy. Check the canes first; they should be plump with no wrinkles, have good green color with creamy white interiors (pith), no dried or discolored buds. The root system should be well developed, sturdy and undamaged, not dry or mushy. The entire plant should be free from damage and obvious signs of disease. Don’t buy dried out roses. You may think that the rose bush will "perk up" when you plant it; that’s not necessarily true. Adjusting to a new environment takes a lot of energy on a rose’s part. Putting it in the ground when it is already stressed just decreases the odds of having a healthy, productive plant.
    If you’re buying a packaged rose, feel its weight. The more moisture the package holds, the heavier the container—probably a good indication that the roots haven’t dried out.
    Some suppliers apply a thin coat of paraffin to the canes to enable them to keep the plants out of the ground and in transit for longer periods of time. Try not to buy waxed roses. They may look nice, but your plant has to grow through that wax and it may slow the development of bud eyes.
    Roses should have tags to properly identify them. The tags are usually small (quarter size), weather-tough metal labels attached to the plant at the base with a twist of wire. The tag has the name of the rose (registered with the American Rose Society). Check the tag to make sure you’re buying the variety you want.
    One other thing to consider, new varieties of roses will be patented and cost more than the non-patented varieties. The owner of a rose patent charges the grower a fee or royalty for each rose they sell, usually a dollar or two per plant. It does not mean that the newer varieties are superior to older ones. There are many, many roses available whose patent has expired that are desirable additions to your garden. Bargain roses are always non-patented varieties—with no royalties to pay, they can be sold at much lower prices.
    For more information on selecting good roses for Marin, check out the Marin Rose Society website at www.marinrose.org or the American Rose Society website at www.ars.org.