By Kim Martin

Photo by Kim Martin

I have loved roses for as long as I can remember, with memories of their sweet scents and beautiful colors and glorious blooms going back to my mother and grandmothers. You could argue that they are a plant for the survivalist as they have been around as a species for at least 5000 years. Most varieties tend to be robust and resilient, withstanding or rebounding from wet and dry weather, an abundance of pests and diseases, and able to grow in cold and warm climates.

At one time, I was growing over 500 different roses, from hybrid teas and shrubs to old garden and English to miniatures and climbing. I have grown both grafted and own-root roses. In the earliest days of my gardening, without the knowledge I eventually acquired, I relied on the mainstream box-store potting mixtures and maintenance products. But as I acquired more varieties of roses over the years and began to discover the handful of specialty rose nurseries and emporiums, I also explored and experimented in more varied approaches to planting and maintaining them. I also realized early on that good fertilizers, pest and disease control, were expensive—especially for hundreds of roses!


Rose growing does not have to be complicated—though it can be if you’re as serious as I have been—and success depends on getting the basics right. As with a garden of anything, whether you’re growing flowers or plants or vegetables, it starts with good planning and proper preparation, which can be said about survival in general.

If you’re new to roses, the best place to start is not at a box store or hardware gardening department, but a local nursery. It will be tempting, no doubt, because of the lower prices of a Walmart or Lowes. But your best chance of success is to start with the healthiest plants, and these will come from places that do not purchase their inventory in mass quantities with little regard for which varieties are most appropriate for your region. In fact, they tend to carry roses that are most commonly known and produced on a larger, more wholesale scale. Their stock may be under- or over-watered, baked by hours of sun while displayed on a slab of heat-radiating asphalt or withering in the artificial light and stifling air circulation inside the store. While being grown for export, they will have been sprayed with pesticides.

And, most importantly, at a nursery you will find associates with horticultural knowledge who can advise you on the best choices for your level of experience and environment.

In planning, the first thing to take into consideration is placement. Roses love sun but can do fine in some shade, particularly if you live in a region with extreme heat. Ideally, they should get six to eight hours of sunlight, four at a minimum, and direct exposure from morning intensity is the best (east or south side of your house or lawn). Choose a site that is protected from strong winds and avoid placement directly under trees. When selecting your roses, make sure you determine how big they will get in both height and width and whether they will spread. With potential growth in mind, plot your placement, allowing plenty of room in between; consult with your nursery as some varieties require more space to grow and spread than others. A good rule of thumb is to allow five to six feet in between and from row to row.

While experts will tell you the best time to plant is after the last frost of spring, you can generally do so anytime in moderate temperatures that fall between 40 and 60 degrees. Just avoid the hottest summer months. To install an in-ground bed or garden (as opposed to a raised-bed), remove all grass and weeds, digging to a depth of about two feet. Prior to preparing and supplementing the soil, use a test kit such as MySoil or Soil Savvy to measure the pH balance. For roses, this should be in the range of 6.0 to 7.0. Your nursery can then advise on what is needed to adjust and correct to a good level.

The soil mixture I favor, which makes for a good density and allows adequate drainage consists of equal parts soil removed from the hole (mine is primarily clay), a dark topsoil, manure, peat moss, and coarse sand. Some experts discourage the addition of sand, suggesting it creates a cementlike consistency, but in my experience it helps to break up and aerate the clay. If you have organic compost, you can also add this. Compost and other organics provide a more stable growing environment, enriching the soil and plants through the roots.

Holes should be 16 to 20 inches wide or about 8 – 12 inches wider than the root ball or pot size. Before planting, if your roses are in pots, let them acclimate for a day or so, keeping them watered and close to where they will be placed. Alternatively, especially for plants that are not in pots, such as bare root roses wrapped or in boxes, it’s a good idea to rehydrate the roots in a bucket or tub of water for a couple of hours. And, in the latter case, you can inspect the roots before planting and trim any weak or straggly ones.

To plant, position the rose in the center of the hole with the bottom of the stems about two inches below the top. This is to cover the bud union, which protects it from cold temperatures, gives it a more secure foundation, and fortifies the root structure. Next, backfill the hole with your soil mixture, lightly tamping it around with your foot. Water well, about a gallon, and when the soil settles add enough additional to fill in. Finally, layer two to three inches of organic mulch. You can use wood (redwood or cedar) chipped or shredded, saw dust, leaf mold, grass clippings, straw, or compost, but many use pine needles, which make the soil acidic and favorable for roses. Another popular choice is mushroom compost. In any case, monitor your mulch for freshness and, ideally, replace it every few months. Mulch is essential for protecting against the growth of weeds, retaining moisture, regulating soil temperature, and preventing erosion.


Roses thrive best when well-watered and will struggle if under- or over-watered. In the spring, newly planted roses should be watered every two to three days; established ones can be watered once or twice a week. The idea is to maintain moist, but not soggy, ground. Particularly in the summer, watch for wilting, which will be a good indication of the need for more watering. In the fall and winter, water as needed if the ground is dry until your roses go dormant; in frost-free climates, continue to water through the winter. For application, water close to the base, pausing to allow soil absorption, and take care to avoid getting water on the foliage, which can cause diseases. The best time for watering is in the morning.


The great thing about organics is that much can be found in your own kitchen. Egg shells, banana peels, tea leaves, and milk powder, for instance. Others include fish bones, alfalfa, Epsom salts, blood and bone meal.

Teabags, which contain acidic tannin, caffeine, and some nitrogen, can be soaked in water for a few hours and then watered it in. You can also sprinkle old tea leaves around the bush.

Eggshells (washed well) should be finely crushed and worked into your compost or soil, and are a great source of calcium.

The peels from ripened bananas are rich in potassium, which is an immunity booster that aids in protection from disease and pests. Potassium also encourages stronger, more spectacular blooms. Yellowing leaves or poorly developed buds and blooms on your roses are indicative of a potassium deficiency. The peels can also be planted in the rose hole to give it a good start, and the sugar content produces microbes that act in the same fashion as worms.

As with egg shells, wash and dry fish bones, then crush and sprinkle around the base of the plant or work into the soil. Fish emulsion also works well with a ratio of 1 tablespoon per gallon of water.

Milk powder is another great source of calcium for the roots and foliage and, as an added bonus, can be mixed with two parts water to one part powder to make a spray that has been used to reduce powdery mildew and black spot.

A half cup of Epsom salts per bush, applied in the spring, provides magnesium for enhanced greening, healthier canes, and prolific blooms—but do not add them if your soil has a higher salinity (check your soil test).

Blood and bone meals contain nitrogen and iron, both of which are essential in the fertilization of roses.

Alfalfa is a long-time staple of organic gardeners and the base of many premade fertilizer mixes. It contains nitrogen, magnesium, iron, calcium, phosphorous, and zinc. Pellets work well as they decompose gradually.

With all things organic, pets and other animals will naturally be attracted to the smells, so take care in your application; the best practice is generally to rake back some of the topsoil, mulch, and/or compost, apply, layer with fresh or untreated cover, and slow water in.

The best time for feeding your roses is initially in the spring and then after bloom cycles—generally about every six weeks—which will stimulate repeat flowering.


All gardens are beset with a number of pests, but roses are particularly vulnerable to aphids, mites, thrips, whiteflies, scales, caterpillars, mealybugs and, of course, the dreaded Japanese beetles. Additionally, they can be prone to black spot, mildew, blight, cankers, rust, rosette, mosaic, and gall.

Soap oil spray for leaves and stems can work well to control most of the standard pests, and is easy to make with just a few drops of dishwashing liquid or baby shampoo to a quart of water, blending in a tablespoon of cooking oil. Spray on all parts of the plant except the flowers every few days as warranted, avoiding the hottest part of the day to prevent scorching. Garlic, which has natural antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties, makes a strong pesticide, using five peeled and crushed garlic bulbs mixed into 16 ounces of water. Let that stand overnight, adding a dash of dishwashing liquid. Strain the garlic bits, add the liquid into a gallon of water for use in a spray bottle, and you’re good to go.

Ants are often drawn to the sweetness of roses, and while they don’t directly harm them, they can be a detriment to the natural predators of beneficial insects. To help control them, you can make a solution of one part peppermint oil to ten parts water and spray around the base of each bush.

Epson salt spray is made with one cup dissolved in five gallons of water and is especially effective on slugs and beetles.

Citrus spray, which is good for soft-bodied insects, can be made with the grated rind from one lemon to a pint of boiling water. Let it steep overnight, strain off the rind, and put into your sprayer. For the best effect, spray directly onto insects by coating the tops and bottoms of leaves.

Sometimes the purest approach can work just as well…a strong blast from your hose (again, only in the morning) will knock off insects and wash away the honeydew produced by some types of pests, such as aphids. Unfortunately, there are some pests, most notably slugs and caterpillars, that you may have to hunt down and manually remove; left unattended, these can cause a lot of damage.

For powdery mildew and black spot, two of the most common fungal conditions, mix two tablespoons of baking soda into your gallon of soap oil spray and begin using it before you see these develop, then every five to seven days afterward, as needed. A mixture that has been used to great success in even commercial rose gardens can be made with one tablespoon of vinegar for each cup of water. For each gallon you can then add your baking soda, dishwashing liquid, and oil mixture for an all-in-one treatment.


All I can say, on behalf of rose-lovers everywhere (or those who covet anything that grows for appreciation or consumption), is UGH! They are a notorious, extremely virulent, and massively destructive plague—simply calling them a pest is vastly incommensurate to the damage they do. Worst, they have virtually no natural predators and even the most potent chemical control has minimal impact on their invasions. Fortunately, they occur during a brief window in the summer, but for me that window has always seemed interminable. During their peak, they descend in swarms to feast on blooms and foliage alike.

There are a few things you can do to help in reduction. In larvae form, they are underground grubs, which can be killed with milky spore. This compound is harmless to humans, pets, and wildlife, and can be obtained from your nursery or garden store. Another application for this approach is beneficial nematodes.

For adult beetles, there has been much debate on the effectiveness of the traps that can be purchased just about anywhere. They do attract and trap beetles (as long as you keep them cleaned out and replaced as needed) but…they attract beetles. Your best bet here is to position them away from your bushes and no more than two to three feet from the ground.

Many rose growers make regular rounds (I did) with a bucket of soapy water, and knock the beetles into it.


My final topic here…all petals, leaves, hips, and buds are not only edible, but a good source of vitamins A, C, and E. Not all roses are fragrant—most that are tend to be of the old garden or English varieties—but the more intense the fragrance, the better the taste. Petals can be tossed in salads, used as garnishes, and to make herbal teas, jams, jellies, and syrups. New or young leaves (make sure they are free of disease) can be made into a tea sweetened with honey. Rose hips are especially sweet and tasty and known for jellies and sauces. They have also been widely used medicinally for their anti-inflammatory properties and are thought to provide relief for symptoms of rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Harvest them when entirely red or orange, cutting in half if you want to remove the seeds.


There are many other topics I could cover, but hopefully these will be informative and motivational. One of the best things about growing roses is the frequency of their blooming and, with good care, longevity in the garden.

Not to mention they’re lovely to look at.

I leave you with this…

Time grows roses, with the gentle hand of love

An earthly imprint of heaven’s tapestry above.

Time grows roses, with the patience of ages

A story creating itself from the ground’s fertile pages.

Time grows roses, with the determination of day

To break from the night and make a new way.

Time grows roses, with the light spring slumber

That skips, then jumps, then rushes into summer.

Time grows roses, the way only time can

Love keeps God's perfect hand.