By Katie Rivera, permaculturist and educator
Katie Rivera, a recent Permaculture Design Certificate recipient and part of the team who designed the Rio Vista Veterans Residence demonstration food forest garden, shares this blog with us about how to grow beautiful roses sustainably. Katie will talk about her research and design process for a rose garden proposed for the Rio Vista Veterans Residence in a Zoom talk on sustainable rose gardening July 27 (Register here!). Join her for interesting facts about growing disease resistant, low maintenance roses and specific ideas and suggestions from the Veterans Memorial Rose Garden design.
Katie Rivera at Cordelia Community Park
I love roses! There is no other flower that can be a shrub, tree, or vine and give you as many choices of colors and fragrances than a rose. Wouldn’t it be nice to grow your own roses and have them thrive? Over the last couple of decades, researchers, rose cultivators and hybridizers have been working hard to get away from using harmful pesticides on their roses. Trials are being done all over the world to identify roses that are disease resistant, use less water, and require minimal care. Thankfully, these experts are sharing their findings with us! This is a great time to grow beautiful roses with just a bit of know-how and very little maintenance.
Rose Development In History
Let’s start with a little history about roses and their names.
Roses have been grown, survived and proven themselves over millions of years on their own without any kind of maintenance or intervention. “Species” roses are the oldest with only five petals. Any existing rose can be crossed with any other rose to come up with a new hybrid rose. A rose hybridized before 1867 is considered a “heritage” rose. Any rose after that date is called a “modern” rose. And roses grown post-2000 are designated “new millennial” roses. Roses that share a common flower form are considered to be in the same class.
The rose is America’s national flower. Did you know that? Well, I learned something new! In 1986, Congress designated the rose as the National Floral Emblem of the United States. Believe it or not, our first president, George Washington, was a rose breeder! The rose ‘Mary Washington’ was bred and named after George’s mother and is still grown today.
So growing roses should be easy peasy, right? Well, yes, if you grow the right rose in the right location with the right conditions. Getting all these components just ‘right’ is what sustainable gardening is all about.
Sustainable Gardening Best Practices
So what is Sustainable Gardening?
According to John Starnes in Probiotic Rose Growing, the healthiest and most stable ecologies in the natural world are complex, multi-tiered ones, with predator and prey creating sustainable balances. Why would our rose gardens be any different or deserve less?
- Observation and taking note of what works and what does not is what sustainable gardening encompasses. We must be aware of what is going on in the garden and try to simulate nature in all its wonderful glory.
- There are many components to watch and take note of in the garden, starting with the soil, water, sun, heat, cold, wind. The list will be specific to your unique site. Then the conscientious gardener must make informed plant decisions using the most organic solutions possible. Where there’s a will to do it ‘right,’ there’s a way!
- Amending the soil might be the first step, but you won’t know until checking the planting area for pH levels (6-6.5 is ideal for roses) and available nutrients.
- In regards to insect predators, the goal is to use an approach called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to manage pests rather than eliminate them, while at the same time exerting minimal impact on the environment.
- Roses thrive with mulch. It slowly breaks down and continuously feeds the soil. In addition, mulch helps retain moisture and blocks weeds. It’s a must!
- Combining roses with annuals, grasses, perennials, shrubs and vines is a great way to create color combinations, make more interesting and creative borders, and attract beneficial insects into the garden. Beauty and benefits? What’s not to like?
Companion Plants for Roses
Trumpet , Oriental and Orienpet Lilies
Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian Sage)
Centaurea montana (Mountain Bluet)
Salvia ‘Blue Hills’
Veronica spicata ‘Royal Candles’
Veronica ‘Sunny Border Blue’
Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’
Nepeta ‘Blue Carpet’
Vining Clematis of all kinds, especially ‘Betty Corning’ and Bush Clematis
*This list comes from William Radler’s Favorite Perennials to Grow as Companions to Roses
Sustainable gardening requires that we develop a healthy respect for the soil as a living organism. Soil is the base we depend on to build our gardens. We must start there before we can begin to grow anything. A good soil is alive with micro- and macro- organisms devouring each other!
Research shows that roses with healthy populations of mycorrhizae are more vigorous, with increased drought- and disease-resistance and the ability to take up more nutrients and water. Myco means fungus. Rhiza means root. So the term refers to the symbiotic relationship between the two. (See resource list for lacto serum and ‘Poop Soup’ recipes.)
Nearly all water and nutrients taken up by roses come from the soil. Therefore, we must try to understand the nature of our native soil and then manage it to provide our roses with what they need.
Soil scientists have determined that the ideal soil texture for growing roses is 60% sand, 20% silt, and 20% clay. These elements are inorganic matter. The composition of good garden soil or humus contains 45% of this inorganic matter, 5% organic matter, 25% water, and 25% air.
The easiest way to improve the water and nutrient retention in your soil is to increase the amount of organic matter. As a rule, the greater the variety of organic material used, the greater the variety of potential nutrient release for future plant use.
Humus can hold up to 20 times its weight in water! One square foot of this quality soil can contain up to 40 gallons of water. Think of it like a sponge (only much better). So it makes sense in terms of water conservation and efficiency to improve the soil so it can retain more water for plants.
Drip irrigation, which only provides water to the plants or areas that need it, can substantially cut back on your usage and help limit the growth of unwanted weeds.
Using synthetic fertilizers actually dries out the soil and causes you to use more water just to keep the plants alive and growing. Besides destroying the health of the soil, pesticides and chemical fertilizers contaminate streams, kill microbial life, leach into waterways, and build up harmful ecological deposits.
Planting Roses the Right Way
A rose that is happy in its conditions, with plenty of sunshine and healthy soil, is going to be naturally healthy and disease resistant in your garden eliminating any need for harsh chemicals (P. Kukielski).
Sounds pretty simple, right? Of course right! This is all you need to do! Yes, you do have a role to play. You can’t plant it and forget it. Make sure you don’t leave any of these important steps out:
Pick the right rose, plant it properly, and care for it well (you won’t need chemicals).
Know that roses thrive in sun, good soil, drainage, and they need air, more water the first year, and regular mulching.
Basic planting steps:
- Amend the soil in the planting bed.
- Dig a hole slightly larger and deeper than the root ball or bare roots of the rose.
- Add compost to the dirt removed from the planting hole at a ratio of ⅓ compost to ⅔ soil.
- Prepare the hole and plant the rose:
- Container rose – backfill hole with compost soil to the bottom of the pot then place plant in the hole and fill in around the root ball. Tamp in well. Soil should be even with natural soil level.
- Bare root rose – create a small mound in the hole and spread the roots over the mound, then backfill with soil compost mixture. Tamp in well. The soil should be even with the natural bed level.
- Water well.
- Top with 3-inch mulch layer.
Katie’s design proposal for a Veterans Memorial Rose Garden
Identifying Sustainable Roses
The best tool I found on picking disease-resistant (not disease free), sustainable roses was Peter E. Kukilski’s book, Roses Without Chemicals. In this book he lists 150 roses, rates them for disease resistance, flowering and fragrance. And with each of these roses, he also suggests companion plants to accent the unique color and growth of the rose. Peter includes lists of roses by region and climate and has fabulous color pictures throughout.
I would also suggest visiting rose gardens, talking to local rose growers, and asking nursery owners which roses do best in your area.
Following are some resource links and lists on the topic of sustainable rose growing.
May you enjoy years of growing and sharing your very own sustainable roses!
Recipes to Inoculate Your Roses
LAB Serum (also known as Lacto)
Can be applied to plants and soil — get the recipe here
- Fill a 5 gallon bucket with 4 gallons of well water or city water aged 2 days.
- Add 1 gallon of FRESH horse poop, stir daily for 1 week.
- Then add 2 cups Calf Manna, 1 cup compost starter, 2 cups good garden soil or fresh compost, 2 tablets of Primal Defense (available at health food stores or online)
- 2 cups of sugar.
- Stir, let brew for 1 day, then sprinkle lightly all over your rose garden, both the plants and the soil.
Our Water Our World: Roses
American Rose Trials for Sustainability
Earth-Kind Rose Trials
Help Me Find Roses
The New Millennial Rose Garden
Paul Zimmerman Roses Forum
Peter Beales Roses Forum