It’s Time to Start Planning Your Dream Rose Garden

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Jennifer Board
·8 min read
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Last year, we talked with fashion stylist (and amateur horticulturist) Lauren Goodman, who transformed her California backyard with carefully chosen roses and a meticulously painted striped fence. It was clear that Lauren took great care and consideration when planning and planting her garden, and fortunately for us, she shared one of her best assets: the knowledge of Jennifer Board, a rosarian and head gardener of San Francisco’s wildly visited Lombard Street. Here, Jennifer shares all her best tips on planning, buying, and caring for your roses.

When to Buy

October through December is the ideal time of year to plan your rose garden, as that is when rose-centric nurseries take pre-orders (which arrive at the beginning of the year). But, if pre-orders feel too extreme, go early for the most robust selection. Spring is when the first bloom (or “flush,” in rose-speak) comes, so that’s a glorious time to inspect the goods (between April and May in California, and May through July on the East Coast). The buy is annual, but if you are acquiring a rose in August, you are in trouble. (That said, if you are determined, it’s possible to find specimens any time of year.)

Where to Buy

Most nurseries carry roses. Even big-box stores like Ace Hardware and Home Depot may have some healthy (albeit more common) specimens. But, if you want to go obscure, find a nursery that has a large selection or, even better, one that specializes in roses. Regan Nursery is incredible, and it ships. It’s where we tracked down some of the more singular varieties Lauren was coveting: “Peter Mayle,” “Maurice Utrillo,” and “Blue Girl.” And it’s where Lauren discovered the luscious “Pink Flamingo.” “I drove an hour and a half each way, because Regan is that good,” Lauren shares. Online vendors such as Jackson & Perkins and Heirloom Roses are also excellent, though you are likely to get bare root. And for that, you may need an expert (more on this below).

This punchy yellow rose is called “Doris Day.”
This punchy yellow rose is called “Doris Day.”
Alanna Hale

Give the Roses What They Need

Space: Roses should be planted 30 to 36 inches apart.

Sun: Roses want six or more hours of sunlight per day.

Air: Roses thrive in well-ventilated and warm conditions. If they are left too wet and windswept, they may show signs of distress.

Soil: Dig a hole about three times the size of the container and fill it with an organic soil compost mix—manure too, about 20%. Lauren’s favorite manure is Earthworm Castings. “It rebalances the soil naturally—without the acidity or stench of animal manure—and encourages earthworms (the healthiest),” says Lauren. A two- to three-inch layer of mulch also supports the soil and roses to retain water.

Water: Roses require a diligent watering schedule during and after planting—especially during hot months. Water deeply once or twice a week, enough to saturate the root zone. Frequent and shallow watering will not meet the roses' needs. Reduce watering when weather cools in early-to-mid-fall—though don’t allow the soil to completely dry out. Roses love water but will show signs of stress if they receive too much.

Food: As an organic gardener, I rely on compost and natural fertilizers to feed my roses before and amid the blooming cycle. In early spring, as first leaf buds form, I recommend pulling away any mounds of compost or mulch from the crown (base of the plant), forming a moat around each bush. Feed each plant a “rose smoothie”: a quarter cup of Epsom salts and a dose of rose fertilizer high in organic ingredients mixed with water. I also recommend rejuvenating the soil surrounding each plant with a few inches of compost in the spring and fall.

This lovely specimen is called “Maurice Utrillo.”
This lovely specimen is called “Maurice Utrillo.”
Alanna Hale
“Blue Girl” is one of Lauren’s favorites.
“Blue Girl” is one of Lauren’s favorites.
Alanna Hale

Choosing and Buying Roses

How to Choose:

Roses are beloved for their range in fragrance, color, bloom shape, and growth habits. Choose what you love. “Geek out,” says Lauren. “There is so much history and legacy with roses. Roses can be garish or achingly classical. Find out what ‘David Austin’ roses are, for instance, and decide if they are your flavor.” It can sometimes take a few years for the rose to hit its stride, but once they do, roses can far outlast a generation of admirers.

Bare Root vs. Potted:

Bare Root: Bare-root roses are dormant plants sold with no soil around the roots. They look like a bundle of sticks once unpacked (instructions on planting are below). They should be planted within 48 hours—and kept in a cool, dark place until then to prevent drying out. Most roses shipped online come barefoot, so it’s easier to access a wider selection for your dream garden.

Potted: If you buy container-grown roses, it’s best to plant them by late spring for the best start (though you can plant them at any time). Container-grown roses are likely to show leaves, and maybe even buds and blooms.

How to Identify a Healthy Rose

Things to look for:

  • Four to five healthy, thick canes (also known as stems)

  • Healthy, green leaves (free of disease or insects—look for holes or mottling)

  • Nice shape (symmetry is prized, lopsided is not)

  • Proper pruning (no crisscrossing or dry, dead canes)

Planting Roses

Bare Root: Once removed from their packing materials, bare-root roses will need to be soaked in a bucket of water for at least 12 hours. Canes should be pruned back, leaving three to five buds per cane, and canes thinner than a pencil should be removed.

Container Roses: Relax the roots after removing from pot and before placing into the ground, by lightly poking at the roots with something sharp.

Whether planting bare-root or container roses, be sure to dig a hole that is much larger than you imagine you will need (roughly 16 to 18 inches wide) and add plenty of organic matter such as compost or manure. Once planted, soak the rose with water. Mound loose soil around the canes to protect the plant while it settles into its new space.

The “Maurice Utrillo” rose is named after the early-to-mid-20th-century French painter.
The “Maurice Utrillo” rose is named after the early-to-mid-20th-century French painter.
Alanna Hale

Caring for Your Roses

Pruning: In the San Francisco Bay Area, mature rose plants are typically pruned hardily and prepped for dormancy in mid-January. Pruning approaches vary among even the most seasoned rosarians, but I normally prune each plant back by roughly 50%, ensuring cuts are made with clean pruners, about a half an inch above an outward-facing leaf bud. I strip foliage and make flush cuts to all crisscrossing branches, branches smaller than pencil thickness, and any dead wood that occurred during the blooming season. Ensure that the base of roses is always clear of debris and fallen leaves to prevent the harboring of disease and insects, as well as to ensure abundant air flow.

Most modern roses will bloom a minimum of three times (or more!), beginning as early as April through as late as December. Once the buds begin to form, finger-prune any unwanted new buds, those aiming toward the center of the plant, and where there may be two to three growing from the same spot. Once the plant begins blooming, I recommend deadheading judiciously through the spring and summer months. Pruning old blooms just above a leaflet with five or seven leaves should produce a new, healthy bloom! If, however, the stems are thinner than a pencil, cut back to where the stem is pencil-width.

Enemies of the Rose

Deer: There is no finer meal to a deer than a garden full of tender rose blooms, buds, and leaves. “I found this out the hard way when I left my garden gate open one night this summer, and awoke to find every bud, bloom, and tender leaf devoured,” says Lauren. “I probably lost 40 roses. What a heavenly meal! So, protect the princesses with a gate or fence.”

Mold and Rust: Powdery mold (which looks like a light coating of white or gray on leaves) is common on roses. Remove leaves that show signs of this ASAP. Mold also dries out leaves, and they might become desiccated. If there are not desired buds on these stems, remove the whole stem from the base. Then spray with neem oil.

Rust, or black spot, can show up as yellowing early on. The “spot” may also show as a circle shape. Another sign of blight is orange powdery growth, often on the underside of leaves. Remove all these leaves ASAP, as well as the stems if the signs of blight are widespread. Spray with neem oil.

In pruning back blight, make certain to clean pruning tools after cutting infected growth, so that the implements do not spread it to healthy growth or plants. Lauren cleanses them with rubbing alcohol to disinfect. Do spray (healthy) leaves with neem oil to help nurture healthy growth and support against blight. Spray morning or evening, outside of direct sun.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest