Real experts who have grown real gardens in the real world on the Front Range tell you  what you need to know to have you rooting for your very own crop of successes this summer season


Raising The Perfect Petals

By Dave Perry, staff writer

There is only one star in every yard or garden, and you know who it is: the rose.

If you live in a neighborhood with frequent passers-by, almost everyone stops to admire the diva in the yard.

The plant is so storied and noble that it comes with its own vocabulary. Someone who specializes in rose science is not a mere gardener, they are a rosarian. And one does not grow roses, one cultivates them.

Despite all the fancy talk, however, and the blooms that come to epitomize beauty and grace, they’re pretty tough little suckers that are happy to flower given a vital rules, experts say.

In fact, the lofty rose thrives pretty well in the Front Range climate, exchanging tough weather for an area that most common rose pests don’t much care for.

Rosarian and Colorado State University master gardener Donnetta Wilhelm says the relatively few things you have to do to accommodate a rose make it a easy and rewarding choice in any yard. Here are the rules and few tips from Wilhelm and other CSU master gardener experts:

Light up their lives

Roses love the sun. If they don’t have enough of it, they won’t flower well, or not at all. Anything less than 6 hours of sun a day is a good place for something else, Wilhelm says. Also, don’t crowd roses with fences, trees, other plants or house foundations. They’re show-offs up above and don’t like to compete with other plant roots. Look for a spot that isn’t over-watered or has poor drainage. “They do not like their roots to be continually wet.”

You can grow roses in large pots or containers, but be ready to baby these plants all summer, making sure the roots don’t bake and the plants get just the right amount of water, and then be prepared for them to die over winter, unless they’re carefully harbored and watered through the cold months. Yards are best.

So many choices

Picking a rose is like picking a car. Don’t rush it until you know what you really want. A hastened choice could mean a one-season wonder, or a lifetime curse of the rose that won’t die or go away. There are three general types of roses: old garden roses, species roses and modern roses. Each type has numerous sub-classes.

If you’re thinking this sounds too complicated and you just want something rosie in the yard, try a climbing or shrub rose. These are the spraying things you see in fences and against houses. They’re pretty tough, fast growing and with good winter care will last for many years.

But if you’re thinking, “diva” and you know, a rose, you’re probably thinking about a hybrid tea rose, like Mister Lincoln or Tropicana. Planted correctly and monitored over winter, these roses do well and can make real spectacles of themselves in your yard, Wilhelm said.

The most important thing to consider is whether the species of rose can actually make it here. Beware that just because a garden center sells it doesn’t mean it will live past the fall. Look for roses that will survive Zone 5 or higher, indicating they can take the severe freezes and short summers that the Front Range is famous for.

Plant it now?

Like most transplants, wait until after the last of the serious freezes and before sweltering heat sets in. May and June are great months for planting most roses. Dry-root roses need to be soaked in water before planting, but “canned” roses can go right into the ground. The best time to plant a rose is when it just starts coming out of dormancy, Wilhelm said.

This is where rose success and failure usually happens, she said. “Soil problems contribute to 80 percent of the problems in our landscapes, so proper soil preparation is vital,” Wilhelm said. Real soil testing, available through CSU, can pinpoint problems but, generally, the biggest problem is the metro area’s infamous clay soil. It packs around roots depriving them of oxygen and either trapping too much water or depriving the plant of water. Add lots of organic matter to the area you’re planting, digging several inches deeper than where the roots will be. Bagged mixes are easiest, but if you mix your own “never” add sand, which essentially then makes concrete.

Roses that don’t have grafts, the bud union where a temperamental rose is grafted onto a tougher rose plant, should be planted where the branching point of the base is about 2 inches under ground level. For hybrid tea roses and others that have the grafted tops and bud unions, plant them 3 inches under ground level, Wilhelm says. This protects the plant from winter damage when it freezes and thaws for months at a time. If you’re from warmer climes, this will seem odd, she said. But planting this way can ensure a long life for your rose.

How much water?

Roses like long, deep drinks. You’ll do best to water them slowly so water seeps deep down into the roots. Flash floods do little. Check the soil around your rose frequently. The ground should feel damp, not soggy or sandy. Sprinkling roses is a good invitation for diseases, Wilhelm says. Water them slowly at ground level.

What do they eat?

Like all plants, they like NPK, the alphabet soup recipe for fertilizer. Roses like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Buy a food that’s created for roses — there are many and some are local. Read and follow the directions. Too much fertilizer is worse than too little. Best times to fertilize are in early May after pruning your rose, and then again every six weeks until late August.

Do I have to chop at it?

Few things give rose owners angst like having to prune the rose, a somewhat tricky but necessary part of keeping healthy plants that keep flowering. Most typical roses should be pruned in late April  when the start growing. Climbing roses should be pruned after their first bloom. But you can prune roses all summer to cut off blooms or get rid of those weird canes that grow at odd angles or amazing heights. Don’t let typical tea roses grow too tall or the canes will just break off in wind, damaging the rose. Invest in a pair of good, bypass pruners. Cut out all dead or sick-looking canes, usually cutting down to the green part. If you can, cut the canes about a 1/4-inch above a bud eye, where leaves and small branches grow from the canes. Seal the cut with a little Elmer’s Glue to prevent pests from getting into the cane.

Make sure that after a bloom fades, cut it off. Deadhead the flower stem back the next five-leaflet leaf. They’re easy to spot. Quit cutting blooms in late fall.

Roses are easy but year-round divas

Unlike most of your yard, roses need some attention all winter long, too. When it looks like winter is really coming, deeply water them. When the days fall into the 20s, cover the rose base with dried leaves or mulch and top it with some garden soul. If the winter is a dry one, water the roses on nice days. Clear away the cover a little at a time in late spring, Wilhelm said. It’s not hard, just necessary because of the area’s dry, harsh winters. 


Everybody has favorite roses, and rosarians tend to have long, long lists of favorites. But narrowed to three, Wilhelm set these apart:

Zephirine Droughin – A Bourbon rose introduced in 1868 is, it’s a large climbing rose. “My favorite thing about this rose, other than its amazing fragrant blooms: it is thornless.”

Therese Bugnet – A Hybrid Rugosa rose. “But it really has an Old Garden Rose look and feel. Double, deep pink flowers with a sweet, rich fragrance.” The deep red canes on this vase-shaped shrub makes this rose a “stand out” in any garden.

Morden Blush – A Canadian shrub rose just keeps blooming. The double blooms are three shades: ivory, light pink and blush. This shrub maintains very large rose hips throughout the winter, which feeds the birds. The rose bush only gets about 3 feet tall and wide. “Very beautiful blooms, but not much fragrance. A nearly maintenance-free rose, in fact, I forgot to prune and fertilize it last year and it grew and bloomed beautifully all season long until November.”


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