Prepare roses now to get your beautiful spring blooms

Published 12:38 am Sunday, March 9, 2008

I’ve spent the last two weeks evaluating my garden and pruning my rose bushes.

After the doldrums of winter, now is the time to get your roses ready for their first magnificent spring flush of blooms. If you regard pruning roses with dread, you might find it comforting to think of yourself as a sculptor who is fashioning a new and more attractive statue. Only this one is a living plant.

Mid to late February is the month to prune roses here, so if you haven’t yet shaped up your rose bushes, now’s the time. Over the years, I’ve learned a few techniques to speed up the process and make it more enjoyable.

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First, arm yourself with the best tools you can buy. There’s a reason that Felco, Fiskars and other top quality pruning shears and loppers are costly. They’re well designed and help reduce muscle fatigue. This is very important when you’re pruning dozens of bushes in a day. Be sure that they are very sharp. I have mine professionally sharpened every January so they make quick, smooth cuts right where I want them. Thick canes require a heftier tool, and that’s when you need to reach for loppers. The extra length gives better leverage. Some canes can grow so thick that you need to remove them or prune with a pruning saw, either a folding or stationary one. Some dedicated rose fanciers use bonsai tools or scissors to prune miniature roses. But if you’re not exhibiting them, you can save time by shearing mini roses at ground level. They’re growing on their own roots and will shoot out new canes with a flourish.

Next, protect yourself. Wear durable gloves, preferably with gauntlets to protect your arms. During winter dormancy, canes are stiffer, and thorns are dried out and more lethal.

Now you’re ready to help your roses prepare for a new year of luxuriant blooms. In general, remove one-third to one-half of last year’s growth. Remove dead canes, crossing canes, and weak, spindly growth that won’t produce any worthwhile flowers. It’s a good practice to dip your shears in a solution of bleach (wipe shear after dipping) so you don’t accidentally transmit rose diseases from bush to bush. Also, seal cut canes so borers can’t enter. You can use nail polish or glue.

Complete the pruning by cleaning up any weeds growing around the roses. Now is the time to add a large handful of Epsom salts at the base of each bush. This helps encourage basil breaks, those healthy new canes that emerge from the bud union. I also like to scatter alfalfa pellets around the roses. Alfalfa contains a hormone that encourages new growth. Be sure you use pure alfalfa, milled for horses, rather than rabbit pellets which contain other ingredients. You can scratch the soil lightly to mix them in, or wait for rains to do the job. Check back after a few weeks because a crust might form that you will need to break apart. Hold off fertilizing with a rose fertilizer until the new growth is at least two inches long.

Evaluate your rose bushes. Are they blooming profusely? Are they healthy? If not, you might want to replace some with the latest varieties that offer very good resistance to blackspot and lots of flowers. I’ve been testing and evaluating rose varieties for several rose companies and find that some really do have good resistance to blackspot, along with very attractive foliage and flowers. Some of my favorites are: Home Run, a shrub with Chinese lacquer red single flowers and yellow stamens; Yellow Submarine, a tall floribunda with outstanding blackspot resistance that blooms heavily with very pretty yellow flowers resembling small hybrid tea flowers; hot cocoa, brick orange-cinnamon flowers that look like small hybrid teas on a tall floribunda with good blackspot resistance; Julia Child, heavily fragrant floribunda with moderate blackspot resistance and lovely, old-fashioned, very fragrant yellow flowers. Laura Bush and Pope John Paul II performed well in their first year in my garden and I think they are also good candidates for Natchez gardens.

There’s still time to obtain roses that are bare root which makes them easier to buy by mail and to plant so you can enjoy flowers in late April.

Karen Dardick writes a monthly rose column for The Democrat. She can be reached a