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This Quarter in the Rose Garden

Dave & Sandy Long

The only way February is exciting to the Long family is the expectation of a glorious spring. February would be acceptable to those who grow roses if it stays good and cold throughout the month and not give any false spring signals to our rose bushes. We hilled up most of our roses between Thanksgiving and Christmas, before the weather closed in, and then everything including the compost and manure along with the rose beds became frozen. Hilling up of the roses helps them to stay cold and dormant versus warm and thinking its spring. Thus, having a steady cold winter, hopefully with a good snow cover, helps to ensure minimal die-back and a healthier bush for April.

While it is nice and cold and snowy outside, February is a great time to review and plan what changes to make with your garden. Sandy and I have some fourteen different planting beds around our property. Six of the beds have only roses under-planted with nepeta while the remaining beds have roses, perennials and annuals. We have about 150 rose bushes and I am always looking to add more. I usually order or purchase a new bush and then try to find a location. I suspect that most of you do the same unless you are extremely organized and plan in advance. I would suggest it is best to plan in advance but when the urge strikes, a rosarian cannot hold back.

While trying to find a location for that new rose, I start to review the yard layout and wonder where I can add a new planting bed. Of course, any time is a good time to add a new bed and eliminate some grassy areas, but February is a great time to review what Gertrude Jekyll, of English garden design fame, called the ‘bones or structures’ of your garden. The leaves are off the trees and everything is in dormancy except the evergreens, hollies and yews. This is an ideal time to see the ‘hardscape’, the ‘bones’ or ‘structure’ of your rose bed or your garden. What is the dimensional shape of your bed? Does it need to be larger? or, add another bed? What structures do you have in the garden? – arbors, trellises, arches, obelisks, stone walls, rail fences, trees that divide one area or bed from another – or do you want any of these? Maybe you just want a raised bed in full sun and grow roses. Whatever your choice, February is a great time to review your desires and your garden plan. Review the rose catalogs, check the CRS web site (, for rose sources and other vital information. I checked my e-mail today to find a message from on placing orders for new roses and how fast they are selling out of some varieties. Ordering early seems to be the order of the day with ever increasing demand from more and more rose lovers.

Tool sharpening and tool upgrade is a ‘fun’ February activity – and a necessary activity if you want to make clean cuts of those rose canes. Locate and organize your tools now and replace those that are broken or worn out. While sharpening those pruners and loppers make sure you lubricate with basic motor oil or ‘3 in 1 oil’ which you can find at your local hardware store. Amazing how well they work when oiled and sharpened. Some people like to sharpen their spades and shovels with a hand file.

Examine and clean your sprayer equipment. Nozzles tend to clog with hardened material when sitting over the winter. Check the sprayer hose for checking and/or cracking. Is it time to replace or upgrade your sprayer? Don’t forget to check your protective clothing that you wear when spraying. Is it in excellent condition? Does your mask need a new filter? Remember if you can smell any level of the material when you are spraying, either your mask is not on your face properly or the filter needs to be replaced. Filters should be replaced each year if you spray on a regular basis. Also, very important – keep your tetanus booster shot up to date. One is needed every 10 years.

Those of you who use Kones and/or ‘condos’ for winter protection must keep in mind that if the temperature reaches 50 degrees or more during the day – you must remove the top covers and allow radiant heat to escape; otherwise the plant may be damaged. During the winter months if you are storing potted bushes in the garage or other cold storage areas you should check them every month for dryness. I water my stored plants within the first week of storing them, and then check them each week until they are partially frozen. No need to water if frozen. When warm spells come and the potted material starts to thaw, you must check for dryness. Loss of moisture can kill the plant.

As we all patiently wait for winter to work itself through late February and on through March, the local nurseries will be receiving their boxed roses and some nurseries – like our own Marci Martin’s Woodland Gardens, will be receiving bare root bushes and potting them up with their own special blend of potting soil. This is an excellent time to shop and pick up some choice selections. These dormant bushes can be stored in the garage along with the potted roses and rose standards from last season. With the start of April most of us start to feel some real spring fever – but hold your horses! Hopefully, you have completed all the winter chores list above and now the catalog roses you ordered should start to arrive around April 15. At least that is when I ask for them to be shipped and usually the supplier will automatically ship at that time because of the growing zone that we live in, but just to be sure I also specify a target date of April 15. The bare root plants are usually shipped in cardboard boxes with moist straw and/or paper cuttings packed around the bush and then wrapped with a plastic cover over the bush and dampish packing. Make sure you open the delivery as soon as possible. The supplier does not always pack them the way I have described and bare roots may be on the dry side. Don’t worry. Simply hydrate the new bushes by placing them in a bucket of water. Don’t tell anyone, but I have left bushes in buckets of water and left them in the garage for four to five weeks! After that amount of time, they look like they are going to bloom any day – not really, but that have very tender new growth. I have had to leave them so long because of either my regular job work schedule or because of the weather, or both. I have not found a problem with hydrating for long periods of time. Of course, when you start planting – MAKE SURE YOU COMPLETELY HILL UP THE NEW BUSH TO THE TOP – this will protect the new growth and keep it from drying out.

As I stated earlier – with April comes April showers and gardeners have desires to start gardening – but WAIT. Is the forsythia blooming in your yard or in your neighborhood? Blooming forsythia has become the standard accepted ‘signal’ in our growing zone used to indicate when we can start to prune roses. The blooming forsythia is a strong indicator that any more hard freezes are behind us and it’s time to prune and shape up the garden. Keep in mind that pruning stimulates the plant and tells it to ‘start growing’. If the weather is questionable you should wait a few more days or even a week or so before starting the pruning. Not good to push Mother Nature. Shrub roses can be shaped, dead wood should be removed from all rose bushes, hybrid teas can be cut down to one foot and shaped as desired and climbers can be pruned for control – but be careful, for some climbers like ‘New Dawn’ bloom off of new wood. If you prune this climber in the spring you will be cutting off the first bloom. Dead-heading ‘New Dawn’ should also be done with care and only remove the bloom back to the first leaf or else you will loose the next bloom. Old Garden Roses (OGR), which are roses as defined by ARS that existed prior to 1867, are usually left on their own in the spring with the exception of removing old wood. Generally, OGRs are pruned in the summer after they have bloomed. Here again be careful. We have two bushes of ‘Louise Odier’ which is a Bourbon introduced in 1851 and usually only blooms once. Last year ‘Louise Odier’ had three blushes! With the unpredictable weather cycles, we tend to let the bushes find their own cycles accordingly. We see ourselves as the rose bushes keepers, to protect them from disease, pests (including deer) and to cut out dead wood. Otherwise, we enjoy their beauty.
Late March – early April is a good time to test your soil. This can be done at the Connecticut Agricultural Extension stations in Windsor or New Haven or at UCONN, Storrs. The targeted pH level for your rose gardens is in the range of 6.5 or just slightly acidic with a pH of 7.0 as neutral. Around the pH of 6.5 provides the best level for the plant roots to take up the nutrients from the soil and the fertilizers that you will be applying during the growing season. The lab report on your soil sample will give a breakdown of concentrations of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus and other characteristics of your soil. If the pH is too acidic (<6.0) the lab will prescribe a level of lime to be added to your garden. Lime is very slow to work its way to the bushes roots. Work the lime into the soil as best you can and if your soil is acidic because of surrounding oak trees, like our yard, you will want to apply the lime also in the fall and let the long winter period work the lime well into the soil.

Planting your new bushes can begin as weather permits, forsythia are blooming and soil conditions are suitable. Start planting with a sufficiently large hole (2 ft. diameter by 20 inches deep) if you can – larger is better. You don’t want a twenty dollar plant in a five cent hole. Amend your soil with organics. We are fortunate to have a cow farm near by and we combine one to two year old manure with composted grass and leaves as our organic menu. This material along with the sandy gravel base material through out our yard provides an ideal soil mixture for growing roses. Place the bare root plant over a cone shaped soil mixture and keep the bud union one to three inches below the garden level. We plant bushes with one-half to two-thirds cup of super phosphate. IT IS NOT RECOMMENDED TO FERTILIZE WHEN PLANTING A NEW BUSH. Backfill the hole to the two-thirds level and pour three to five gallons of water in the hole to settle the material and the bush. DO NOT PUT YOUR FOOT IN THE HOLE TO COMPRESS THE MATERIAL. Let the water filter down and out of sight. Complete the backfilling of the hole and HILL UP THE BUSH TO COVER ALL CANES. Within a couple of weeks depending on the weather and how cold the soil was when you planted, new growth will start to appear from the canes that you covered with soil. This means that the plant is taking up water and nutrients through its roots. Be careful when you start to uncover your newly planted bushes and the bushes that have wintered over from last year. You want to protect the bush from the hot mid day sun. You want the bush to ‘harden up’ first to its new exposed environment and not dry out. So uncover slowly over a period of days as the weather permits. If you use Kones or Condos for winter protection you want good ventilation and you do not want radiant heat to build up in a closed environment of a Kone. Plants will burn. You can remove the mounded soil and covers such as Kones when the buds begin to swell on your bush. A good and safe way to remove the soil from tender growth and around the bud union is to use a hose sprayer or garden hose very lightly. You want to slowly remove the soil and not damage the tender growth.

Once new growth starts to appear, you should start a preventative disease program. Mid to late April is the time you may want to use a lime-sulfur application according to the directions to control wintering over fungal spores. We used lime-sulfur around Thanksgiving time when we put the garden to bed. I will use it the early spring before any growth starts to appear. There are many preventative disease programs on the market. First stop by Connecticut Rose Society’s web site ( for recommendations and insights. Check out the web site called ‘Rosemania’ for their recommendations. Read the American Rose Society’s magazine. We are currently using Banner Max and Compass on an alternating two week cycle combined with Mancozeb and have had very good results.
Fertilization of your bushes should not begin until new growth is established and soil temperature is warm enough to take up the nutrients. End of April or beginning of May might be desirable depending on weather. A granular fertilizer such as basic (10-10-10) is widely used by our Society members on a monthly basis for three or four months of the summer season. You may want to first consider using a liquid fertilizer as a ‘wake up call’ in late April or early May since the soil temperature may be too cold to take up the granular fertilizer.

You are encouraged to attend the April meeting of the Connecticut Rose Society which covers the topic of ‘Opening the Rose Garden’. This will give you more insights and alternate methods and procedures in addition to those mentioned in this article. Remember, gardening is not an exact science. Gardening allows each individual to take the knowledge acquired and create your own environment.

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