Is your rose garden ready for this season?

by Don Trotter Ph.D.


ello fellow Earthlings, and wel- come to the rose garden. I want all of you to have some extra fun with this particular column. Yes, because gardening is fun, but also because roses are such an emotionally rich part of our collective gardening consciousness. If you find this topic interesting and helpful, I encourage you to contact me with your specific rose questions and I'll see to it that you are totally prepared for an awesome spring, full of flowers. Now let's talk about that rose garden

This is the time of year to prepare your rose garden's soil for the coming spring flush of growth and flowers. If you follow the advice provided in this article, your roses will be something to brag about when the weather gets warm. Beautiful garden roses are some of the most spectacular and pleasing testimonies of successful gardening practices and the rebirth of spring.

The most frequently forgotten factor in a rose grower's agenda is the soil that the roses are growing in. This oversight is perpetuated because of all the advertising by the big chemical corporations about their products that feed the rose bush, kill the bugs, wipe out fungus, sweep your porch and change the baby's diapers. As usual, if it sounds too good to be true, it normally is. These companies fail to tell you about the toxic runoff and the degradation of the soil's structure wherever these products are used. They also fail to tell you that pest insects will develop a resistance to the insecticide, fungi will find a way as well, then what are you left with? A toxic soil that cannot support the lives of your cherished roses. We propose an alternative to this costly, toxic and wasteful method of rose care. The only catch is that it takes a little while to work, so start now to ensure a bountiful spring bouquet of fragrance and color in the rose garden.

The first thing to do is clean up all of the spent blossom and deadwood in the roses themselves. Then rake around the rose garden to clean up any fallen leaves, petals or trash. Now we are ready to start. Note: for those of you that are creating backyard compost, kudos, and from this moment forward when I refer to mulch, you may substitute compost.


1. Count how many rose bushes, rose trees and climbers that you have in the garden

  This is important so you don't spend your day running back and forth to the garden center or to the farm and garden supply for materials. One trip makes it more fun.


2. Figure out how much mulch (compost) you will need for the job

  For rose bushes less than five years old, use one cubic foot of mulch per rose bush; for rose trees, use one cubic foot of mulch at any age; for climbers, use one cubic foot of mulch for any age plant. For rose bushes older than five years, use two cubic feet of mulch per bush. Most organic mulches and composts are sold in two or three cubic foot bags. It is the mulch that is the secret food for the soil so choose a product that you are confident of.


3. Add some magnesium


The minerals that you feed the soil in the spring will determine how the soil feeds the roses during the rest of the growing season. These minerals break down slowly, thus the reason for applying them early in the season.

In every issue of every rose publication, they talk about the importance of magnesium to the rose. This is true, but the methods of getting magnesium into your rose garden that these publications often recommend is Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). I prefer a different material. Sulfate of potash magnesia, or Sul-Po-Mag, is a wonderful product that is less expensive than Epsom salts and will last much longer. This product should be applied on the bare soil, 18 inches from the stem or main canes of the rose and all the way around the plant. Use half a cup of Sul-Po-Mag per rose bush less than five years old and the same amount for tree roses and climbers. For rose bushes older than five years, use one cup of Sul-Po-Mag per plant.


4. Don't forget the phosphate

  Use the same formula for soft rock phosphate that you did for Sul-Po-Mag. You can do these operations separately or mix together equal parts of soft rock phosphate and Sul-Po-Mag then apply both of the products at double the rate for Sul-Po-Mag alone. This will work out to one cup of mix for rose bushes less than five years old rose trees and climbers. For older roses the amount of mix will be two cups. Apply in the same 18" radius circle around the main canes of the rose bush suggested in step 3.


5. Add a little nitrogen

  Sprinkle a small amount of an organic nitrogen source around each rose plant to help the soil digest. You may use poultry guano, blood meal, hoof & horn meal or alfalfa meal. I like alfalfa meal because it is slowly released and does not attract cats and dogs like animal product will. Use this nitrogen source at the rate of one quarter of a cup to one half cup per rose plant dispersed evenly over the top of the minerals.


6. Water the garden lightly

  Do not let any runoff occur. This will adhere the products to the bare soil surface prior to application of the mulch layer.


7. Mulch the garden

  Apply the mulch over the top of the circle that you created with the minerals and nitrogen source. The mulch layer should be a minimum of 1 inch thick, preferably two to three inches for good moisture retention and food for the soil during the growing season. After you have mulched, broadcast two cups of Gypsum or Lime over the mulch around each bush. This will provide valuable calcium to your roses for the entire growing season. Ask your nursery professional which material is best for your area. If you have alkaline soils, use gypsum. If your soils are acidic, lime is appropriate.


8. Water the entire rose garden thoroughly

  Repeat this watering every other day for about a week, and then return to your regular watering schedule. This extra water will hydrate the mulch and help to accelerate the decomposition of the mulch layer.


9. You do not need to work in the rose garden again until June.

June is the time to apply the first of the year's fertilizer in preparation for summer. This project will take about four hours for a thirty-bush rose garden, working at a leisurely pace. When summer arrives, you will notice the change in the soil around the roses, and you may even begin finding more earthworms. By the end of next season, the wigglers will be everywhere in the rose garden helping you to grow perfect roses.

In future months, we will be discussing the use of beneficial insects and organic insect repellents to keep those roses clean of bad guys. See you in the Garden!

  Got Questions? Fax the Doc at (760) 632-8175 or email him at Don Trotter's columns appear nationally in environmentally sensitive publications. Look for his book Natural Gardening A to Z, coming in July from Hay House Publishing.