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Raising roses: Expert advice from Rosarian Linda Guy

Linda Guy and Bruce Johnson prune roses in the Rose Garden on February 19, 2018.
Linda Guy

By Sally Pearsall Ericson, Director of Marketing and Public Relations

Linda Guy, longtime Rosarian at Bellingrath Gardens and Home, recently gave a presentation during the Winter Wednesdays series. Here are her suggestions for best practices in your rose garden. 

For best results, select the right gardening tools. Her favorites: Clippers, leather gloves, and a kneeling cushion. When shopping for clippers, remember that the quality of the steel makes a difference, Guy advised. She uses Felco pruners because of their high quality (available in the Gift Shop); these come in regular and small sizes, and there is also a left-handed version. She uses regular leather gloves  for some types of pruning, but shorter, lighter cloth gloves for weeding. (Gloves with forearm protection are also available in the Gift Shop.) A kneeling cushion will keep you comfortable when you’re reaching down at the roots to remove weeds; another good option is a small cart on wheels that you can use as a low seat.

Linda Guy clears away mulch to get a good luck at the base of a bush at the front of the Rose Garden.

Getting started: If you’re putting in a new rose garden, remember that it’s important to select a well-drained area that will get plenty of sunlight — six to eight hours a day. (If a rose bush is labeled “shade tolerant,” that means it will stay alive, but it won’t bloom, Guy said.) It’s best to have at least 18 inches of prepared soil for your garden. One way to avoid a lot of digging is to build a raised bed with landscape timbers or treated lumber. If you’re digging in clay soil, make sure your hole is very wide and deep to accommodate the plant’s root system. Also, Guy said, while you’re creating your new garden, consider adding an irrigation system. It’s well worth the investment and extra effort.

Soil issues: One of the overlooked factors in growing good roses and most other plants is pH, a measure of the acidity and alkalinity in soils. The soil throughout much of the South is more acidic. When the soil is too acidic, nutrients become insoluble and thus are unavailable to plants, while toxins in the soil are more soluble, which may result in damage to plants. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive to adjust the pH level in the soil, and doing so can make almost any fertilizer more efficient by as much as 40 to 50%.  The pH range that is best for roses is 6.0-6.5. Guy recommends conducting soil tests to determine the pH levels in your garden; you can find the test kits and detail sheets at the Mobile County Extension Office at the Jon Archer Agriculture Center, 1070 Schillinger Road North. Once you’ve gotten your test results, add dolomitic lime to the soil if recommended to adjust the pH balance. A general guideline for the amount to use is 5 lbs. per 100 square feet to raise the pH one point.  This may vary about a pound according to soil type.  Sandy soils require less and clay soils require more. Water thoroughly to get the lime down into the soil.  If you’re building a new bed, work it into the soil before planting for best results.

Fertilizers and nutrient requirements: The three major elements needed for healthy plant growth are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Organic fertilizers are better than synthetic, Guy advised, and she also cautioned gardeners to be careful not to overuse phosphorus, because it remains in the soil until it is used by the plant, which means it lasts a long time. Banana peels are a great source for potassium, Guy said, and gypsum is a good source of calcium, which also helps to open up clay soil. When you’re buying a bag of fertilizer, you’ll notice that the front of the bag lists three numbers. That listing is the ratio of elements in alphabetical order: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Recommended formulas for Gulf Coast soil are 12-4-6,
16-4-8, 15-0-15 or 12-2-14.

Crown gall, a bacterial disease, can cause young plants to become stunted.

The blackspot battle: To avoid blackspot and other destructive funguses, Guy recommends spraying your roses with a fungicide every two weeks or so. When spraying, always follow the directions carefully, to avoid burning the leaves. Also, be sure not to use the same sprayer that you use for herbicides, because roses are very sensitive to even small amounts of herbicide. If you encounter crown gall, a type of bacterial disease that creates tumor-like growths, mostly at ground level, dispose of it carefully to keep it from spreading, and sterilize any tools that may have touched it. Crown gall can affect the vitality of the bush, and this disease is the major reason that we occasionally have to replace entire plants in the Rose Garden.

Nonproductive shoots should be trimmed away.

Pruning: Guy’s official pruning season is mid-February through March 1. Pruning the roses is essential to remove any types of growth that won’t use the plant’s energy in the most effective way; it’s also essential for healthy growth. Pruning increases production and forces the bush to renew itself. It will also extend the life of the plant.

If the bush has several long branches with non-productive growth, or any stems that show signs of disease or damage, prune those away, Guy said. Identify the most productive canes and look for any bud eyes (tiny knobs on the stem that mark the start of a new branch). Trim 1/4 inch at a slight angle above the bud eye. Don’t worry too  much about the angle, she said, because most of the time you’re cutting at an angle anyway; just don’t make the angle too steep.

If you’ve got additional questions about rose care, come by the Gardens on weekdays before 3 p.m. and ask Linda in person. You’ll usually find her right in the middle of the Rose Garden, hard at work.