Caring for roses


Hybrid Tea rose © Ita McCobb

General rose care

As long as you provide the right conditions, roses can be successfully planted in garden borders, used to hide a wall, screen an unpleasant view, decorate a pergola, create a feature or exotically fragrant corner, brighten up a terrace or balcony or even fill in bare patches in your flowerbeds! But with so many attributes they inevitably also need great care and attention.

Mulch roses regularly with rotted organic matter and/or manure immediately after feeding with fertilizer. Keep the mulch clear of the rose stems, leaving a 10 cm gap between the mulch and stems.

During the growing season, feed roses in containers every fortnight with a general-purpose liquid fertilizer. Once flower buds form, treat your roses with high-potassium liquid fertilizer, such as tomato feed.

All roses, especially container roses, need water. Once established, roses (other than container roses) can survive on the water naturally available in the soil, but until they are established they will need regular watering, especially if the soil is fairly dry or the season is unusually dry.

Water container roses regularly.

As well as long deep roots, roses have shallow roots near the soil surface, so when hoeing avoid hoeing too near the plant itself and keep your hoeing very shallow.

Roses don’t like to be surrounded by weeds so, although hand-weeding and mulching will control annual weeds, perennial weeds may need to be removed individually with a fork. Mulching and planting ground cover plants will help to keep your roses weed-free.

Weed-killers based on glyphosate and other systemic chemicals* risk being taken up by rose suckers and severely damaging your roses. Ask at your local garden centre about contact-weed killers*, which are less risky to use.

*Note: Systemic insecticides are risky because they become incorporated and distributed systemically throughout the whole plant. Contact insecticides are toxic to insects upon direct contact. Keep children and pets well away from treated plants.

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Rosa Penelope © Ita McCobb

Pruning roses

Most Old Garden Roses (see Choosing roses) require minimal pruning as removal of branches would also remove next year’s flower buds. So restrict your pruning of these varieties to removing weak and spent branches and reducing overall size.

Modern Hybrids (see Choosing roses) bloom continuously during the growing season (unless stopped by frost) so you should prune any spent flowering stems in order to divert the plant’s energy to producing new flowers. Added to which, Modern Hybrids planted in cold Winter climates require a “hard” annual pruning in early Spring since they are not as cold-hardy as Old Garden Roses. If left unpruned, they may die back to their roots.

Prune with sharp secateurs making each cut slope back from about 0.75cm above a dormant bud to a point on the opposite side of the stem that is level with the top of the bud.

Make the cut at an angle to ensure your plant remains disease free. Prune towards the outward pointing bud to ensure that the new stem develops in an open manner, so reducing the risk of disease. Prune away any dead, diseased or damaged wood from the plant.

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Dead-heading roses

Dead-head flowers to remove dead, unsightly or discoloured flowers and encourage the plant to focus its energy on forming new shoots and blooms. Roses grown for their decorative hips should not be dead-headed in Autumn.

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Rose rust on leaves © Ita McCobb

Rose problems

If you haven't already realized, roses are sensitive creatures subject to a myriad of problems from insect infestations to attacks of fungal black spot, powdery mildew and even rust! The good news is that most of the treatments (but not all) for these problems are the same, so you should be able to find a suitable “catch-nearly-all” product at your local garden centre.

Note: Since the law on chemicals that are safe to use in the home is constantly being revised we have avoided making specific chemical recommendations.

The following is a summary of the main destroyers of roses.

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Rose aphids

These frequently attack the leaves and flower buds of roses causing stunted growth. Use a systemic insecticide from your local garden centre when leaves begin to appear and repeat when necessary.

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Rose vapour moth

These are hairy, bright yellow caterpillars. To avoid them infesting your roses, routinely spray roses with a current product from your local garden centre.

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Rose winter moth

These are green caterpillars that are active early in the year. To avoid them infesting your roses, routinely spray roses with a current product from local garden centre.

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Cuckoo-spit insects

These are pale green or yellow nymphs. They produce spittle-like masses on leaves and shoots of roses inside of which live the larvae, which suck the sap of the rose and cause wilting of leaves and malformed young shoots. Destroy by syringing with clear water to remove the spittle then routinely spray your roses with a current product recommended by your local garden centre to kill the larvae and keep the insects at bay.

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Rose-leaf hoppers

These are small yellow sap-sucking insects found on the underside of rose leaves particularly during hot weather. They cause foliage to become mottled and turn yellow and can even cause roses to completely lose their leaves. As soon as damaged leaves are seen, spray the leaves (particularly the undersides) with a suitable product recommended by your local garden centre.

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Rose leaf-rolling sawfly

These black, shiny larvae feed on the surface of rose leaves, which then causes the leaves to roll up. If leaves have already started to curl, then, wearing gloves, pick off and burn infested leaves. To avoid attacks spray the leaves regularly with a proprietary brand from your local garden centre.

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Rose canker

Several different fungi can cause rose canker. Crown cankers develop at the base of the plant and cause it to die back while other cankers create depressions near a wound on the wood and kill the stems. Carefully prune away diseased wood (ensuring you cut away all the diseased parts) and burn it.

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Rose blackspot

Everyone has seen blackspot since it is not easy to control, especially during wet weather. To avoid it, new rose bushes should be treated before they are planted – check that your rose plant supplier can guarantee your plant has already been treated or ask at your local garden centre for a suitable product to treat it with.

It manifests itself as dark-brown spots on foliage, twigs and leaf stalks, causing early loss of leaves and general loss of vigour. Control with a suitable fungicide from early Spring onwards. If signs of the disease develop spray with a proprietary brand recommended for that purpose.

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Rose powdery mildew

Infected plants have white powdery coatings on foliage and stems, which consist of numerous spores and fungal threads that suck the sap from the plant. If left untreated these spores turn brown and prepare to attack the next year’s plant growth. Spray the foliage regularly with a proprietary brand from your local garden centre.

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Rose rust

These fungal diseases create yellow, brown or orange eruptions that can present a “rusty” effect anywhere on the plant. While this problem is rarely fatal it can cause your rose (and any other plant nearby) to become extremely tatty and lose all its leaves.

To successfully treat it you need to find the source of the infection – which may well be on another plant completely. Since the fungus can’t be seen as it lives inside the wood, the only way to destroy it in plants that have become badly diseased is to uproot and burn them.

Spray healthy plants regularly to avoid contamination.

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Rosa Rosy cushion © Ita McCobb

Caring for your roses month by month

Always try to keep the soil around the base of your rose quite firm and never let it become too dry or cracked – but equally, never let it get too wet – just dampish is the better option.

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In January, as long as the soil is not wet or sticky and there is no frost or snow on the ground, rose planting can continue.

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In March, complete your rose planting as soon as possible. Prune roses where necessary by the end of the month, beginning in the southern part of your garden and working northward.

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In April, complete pruning and feed roses with rose fertilizer hoed into the surface soil. Tie new growths of Climbing and Rambling roses. During prolonged dry weather water newly planted roses. 

Mulch rose beds with manure, garden compost, moist peat or a suitable mulch preparation from your local garden centre. Keep weeds under control.

Buy and plant in your garden or terrace potted roses from your local garden centre.

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In May, regularly treat roses against disease and insect attack and pick and destroy any infected/rolled up leaves.

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In June, enjoy your roses!  For impressive blooms, remove small side buds from flower shoots. Hoe roses regularly and always remove briar shoots and suckers at their source. Remember to regularly water roses in containers. Treat against disease and insect attack.

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In July, enjoy your roses! Cut blooms for the home (on established roses cut as short as possible) and remove deadheads as they occur. After the first flush of blooms has finished, feed roses with fertilizer hoeing it into the soil. Treat against disease and insect attack.

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In August, enjoy your roses! Cut blooms for home decoration (on established roses cut as short as possible) and remove deadheads as they occur (unless you want to encourage rosehips on those roses that produce them, in which case leave the deadheads).

Stop applying fertilizer but continue treatment against disease and insect attack. Start planning/ordering rose plants for November planting.

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In September, remove faded blooms with a sharp, sloping cut from 1cm above a leaf. Treat for mildew and greenfly.

Disbud Hybrid Tea roses by picking off the two small side buds from each cluster of three buds.

Train and loosely tie back climbers. Prune old growth on once-only flowering Climbers and Ramblers and varieties that are used as Weeping standards.

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In October, prepare new rose beds for planting – digging the plot over well and mixing in plenty of fertilizer. Continue to treat against greenfly and fungal diseases (regularly changing your brand of insecticide).

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In November, prepare new rose beds by adding a mixture of bone meal and peat or other humus-forming material. Alternatively, use a branded mixture from your local garden centre.

Begin to plant out new roses.

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In December, as long as the soil is not wet or sticky and there is no frost or snow on the ground, rose planting can continue.

Prepare established roses for Winter by shortening long growths to around 1 metre and collecting and destroying fallen leaves that have traces of blackspot. Loosen the top 2 cm of any compacted soil around your plants.

And most of all, take time to enjoy your roses!

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References: Ita McCobb; Jennifer Hope-Morley; Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press; The Royal Horticultural Society Gardeners’ Encyclopedia of Plants & Flowers, Christopher Brickell ed., Dorling Kindersley Ltd; The Gardening Year, Reader’s Digest; Botany for Gardeners, Third edition, Timber Press; David Austin Roses; Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London; Missouri Botanical Garden; International Botanical Congress (IBC).

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