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Roses in January

  • Barbara J. Euser
  • What is it about roses that is so endlessly fascinating? Perhaps it is their myriad petals—or perhaps their myriad forms: hybrid teas, floribunda, miniature, bush, old, wild, rambling, climbing. Or perhaps it is their unparalleled fragrance.

    Our Mediterranean climate is well suited to growing roses, assuming one’s garden has a protected space with five or six hours of sun a day. Roses require sufficient sun to thrive.

    This is the time of year when bare root roses are available at local nurseries. I am thinking of planting a new rosebush in a sunny spot as a specimen plant: I can see a large bush of yellow roses there. But before I plant another one, I will tend to my existing roses.

    First, I will go through my rose bed and pick all the old leaves off the plants. The next few months, rose plants should go dormant, resting and getting ready to grow again in spring. If the rose plant is not supporting those last, clinging leaves, it will become dormant more quickly. Similarly, I will pull the petals from the faded flowers, but I will not cut them off. By leaving them on the plant, I encourage it to form rose hips—and then go dormant. Later on, I can gather the rose hips and use them to make tea.

    I have several roses that are budded roses, that is, flowering canes grafted onto root stock. January is a good time to prune them. I will not prune my miniature rose bush, or the ramblers down in the corner of the garden (those not grafted onto root stock) because they bloom on current growth. If I prune them now, I will be cutting off this season’s potential blooms.

    For the others, I will prune off the dead branches, twiggy growth and crossing branches. Since I have removed the leaves, I can more easily see the skeleton of the plant and decide how I want to encourage it to grow. I cut ¼ inch above a bud and slant the cut downwards away from the bud, so rainwater will drain off. I look carefully at the bud and consider the future shape of the bush: buds facing outward away from the center of the plant will increase the width of the plant as they grow. Buds facing inward toward the center of the plant will create a more compact shape. I remove 1/3 to ½ of the plant. Then I take the opportunity to spray each rose with dormant oil to eliminate pests.

    When I have finished pruning, I pick up all the leaves and petals and dispose of them. This act of good garden hygiene prevents pests developing in the discarded foliage, pests that would be well positioned to attack my plants in spring.

    Now for my new rose bush. At the nursery, I will examine the bare root roses—looking a lot like brown sticks—and choose one with several healthy canes growing above the bud union, the location at the base of the plant where a bud producing blooming canes was grafted onto the rootstock. I will also look for a substantial bundle of roots to support my plant. Since the plants have no leaves or flowers, I have to rely on the little metal tag attached to one of the canes to tell me which rose I am buying. Although the nursery may be selling plants dipped in wax, I will not consider buying any of them. The wax keeps the plants from drying out during shipment, but it also prevents the plants from breathing properly once they are planted.

    Before I plant my new rose, I will trim off any broken roots and dead twigs and soak the entire plant for twenty-four hours in a bucket of water to rehydrate it. By adding one cup of household bleach to five gallons of water, I can kill any microbes the plant is carrying. I will be particularly industrious in digging a hole large enough to spread the roots out nicely. I like the old saw “put a fifty cent plant in a five dollar hole” to describe relative dimensions. Before I put any dirt back in the hole, I will mix it with compost from my compost pile. Since the soil in my garden is clay—that is, composed of a lot of small particles that clump together—mixing in compost lightens it and allows it to drain better.

    In the bottom of the hole, I will build a cone of my newly mixed soil, high enough so that when I put the plant on it, the bud union will be about three inches above ground. I will spread its bare roots over the mound so they will support the plant from all directions. Then I will fill in the rest of the soil mixture, carefully tamping it down. I will add mulch around the stem of the plant, covering the bud union to keep it from drying out. The mulch should be removed after six weeks. In the next few months, the mound of soil under the rose will compact and the plant will sink, so the bud union will be just above the ground. I will build a small dike around the plant and I will water it well—my father used to call it “puddling in.”

    Our winter rains will probably keep my new rose plant watered, but if we have a dry spell, I will make sure to keep the plant moist. By spring, it will be ready to grow, and if I have purchased a budded rose, it should bloom the first year. If I have bought a rose growing on its own roots, I will not expect any blossoms: its job this first year is to develop healthy roots and become established. In either case, I will anticipate many beautiful blooms in years to come. 

    For more information on how to care for roses in Marin, check out the Marin Rose Society website, www.marinrose.org. The Society encourages those who are interested to attend their first meeting of the year on Tuesday, January 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Livermore Room of the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross.