How to Grow Roses the Natural Way


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People love roses (it's no wonder they're our national flower) and many wish they could include them in their gardens. Unfortunately, roses have the reputation of being difficult to grow, and that they don't bloom well unless you make regular applications of fertilizer and pesticides. This just isn't true. Growing roses can be fun, environmentally friendly, and rewarding when you choose the right roses for your garden and know how to keep them healthy. NGA's Web site, garden.org, has loads of information on caring for roses, from selecting plants to pruning, and details about growing specific types such as shrub roses and antique roses. Most importantly, we can tell you how grow roses successfully without using dangerous pesticides.

During National Garden Month®, we encourage everyone to plant roses. Our National Garden Month partner, "Remember Me" Rose Gardens (www.remember-me-rose.org), sets the example by planting rose gardens near the three September 11th crash sites as a way to remember the victims of those attacks. To celebrate the New York City GROWS Garden Festival on April 28th, 2007, in Union Square Park South Plaza, another NGM partner, All-America Rose Selections (www.rose.org), will donate a 30-plant rose garden to a public elementary school in New York City as part of their sponsorship of NGA's Adopt a School Garden Program (www.garden.org/asg). AARS also sponsors NGA's "Remember Me" Rose School Garden Awards that provide rose bushes to 20 more schools throughout the country!

Want to join in the fun? Here's how to choose a rose and keep it healthy — the natural way.

Rose Selection

Select varieties that are adapted to and hardy in your growing region. Look for disease-resistant varieties such as 'Bonica', 'Carefree Wonder', 'Cecile Brunner', 'Livin' Easy', 'Martha Gonzales', and 'Old Blush' to reduce the need for pesticides.

Certain characteristics indicate how susceptible a rose might be to insect attack. For instance, light-colored roses (whites, yellows, and pinks) are the most attractive to pests. As a rule, modern roses (such as hybrids teas) are also pests' first choice. Their blossoms feature high, pointed centers and tightly packed petals where pests can hide, making the critters more difficult to keep in check. Shrub, species, and old-fashioned roses have more open flowers and branching habits, making pests easier to spot and control.

Where to Plant?

Roses require at least six hours of direct sun per day to flower well. Ideally, the location should provide good air circulation and receive morning sun to help dew dry early in the day, which can minimize disease problems.

Roses are rather finicky about soil, so it's a good idea to have your soil tested prior to planting. Most university extension services will do this for a nominal charge. A healthy soil grows healthy plants that will have fewer problems. Amend the soil with compost and fertilizer as recommended by test results. If you grow roses in containers, use potting soil and time-release fertilizers for best results.

Rose Care

To help roses establish a sturdy root system, moisten the soil to a depth of 18 inches every week during the growing season. When rainfall is inadequate, soak the soil by hand with a garden hose, or put the roses on a soaker hose or drip irrigation system set on a timer.

Fertilize when new growth first starts in the spring and again in midseason with a natural formulation that feeds the soil as well as the plant.

Managing Pests

Even if you follow all these guidelines, this is nature we're dealing with, so you may still have problems with insects and diseases. Here are some kid-, pet-, and environmentally friendly products we recommend to keep your roses looking good.

Disease Controls
  • Anti-transpirants, which are normally used to protect plants from drying out, are also believed to work to control fungus by coating the leaves with waxes, plastic polymers, or silicones, that prevent fungal spores from infecting leaves.
  • A mixture of baking soda, horticultural oil, and water can help control powdery mildew. This homemade fungicide also reduces or eliminates black spot to acceptable levels on resistant rose varieties. Mix one rounded tablespoon of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and one tablespoon of horticultural oil per gallon of water, and spray on a weekly basis (and again after a heavy rain). To avoid burning the leaves, make sure plants are well hydrated and spray early in the morning. Do not apply during hot weather. You can also buy commercial formulations that use potassium bicarbonate, which is more effective than sodium bicarbonate for powdery mildew control.
  • Sulfur-based fungicides have long been the organic gardener's weapon of choice for battling fungal diseases. Just don't use them when temperatures exceed 90° F.
  • Whole neem oil can control black spot, powdery mildew, and rust as well as many insects and mites. (Neem oil comes from the tropical neem tree, Azadirachta indica.) Neem is also less harmful to beneficial insects, than chemical insecticides.
  • Bacillus subtilis is a recently discovered bacterium that attacks fungi that cause diseases such as powdery mildew and black spot. Use it as preventive spray and to control existing infections.
Pest Controls
  • Water. Nothing fancy here, just plain old water. A strong spray from the hose can knock aphids, spider mites, and other pests off plants. Spray in the morning so leaves have a chance to dry during the day.
  • Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a microbial insecticide that kills only moth and butterfly larvae and is harmless to most other insects and animals. However, it won't discriminate between pest caterpillars and those of desirable butterflies.
  • Horticultural oil, or "summer" oil, control a wide variety of pests such as rose scale, whitefly, aphids (and their eggs), and spider mites. Don't use horticultural oils when you expect temperatures to rise above 90° F.
  • Insecticidal soaps. These specially formulated soaps are a key element in any least toxic pest-control strategy. They're effective against a wide range of pests, particularly soft-bodied insects such as aphids, immature scale, leafhoppers, mites, thrips, and whiteflies.

Now go and GROW a rose or two - with confidence!

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