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Rose Planting 101


Q. Dear Mike: My husband and I love your show! We also love roses and used to have 48 bushes. Now we're starting over in a new home, where the soil is very rocky with a lot of clay. Can you provide some advice on planting in these new conditions?
    ---Terri in Cumberland, MD
Mike: Love your show! I would like to transplant some roses this spring. In the past I have not been very successful with this; they don't seem to grow much afterwards. In fact, several have not grown more then a foot since I moved them three years ago. I use transplant shock activators and water well. Hope you can help.
    ---Michele in Mt Laurel, New Jersey
A. Well, your problem is obvious, Michele; you should have bought transplant shock PREVENTERS, not activators! (Sorry, but that was just too juicy to pass up.)

Anyway, roses are pretty easy to transplant; I move mine around as if they were annual flowers and the only ones I've lost were the ones I forgot to put back in the ground at the end of the day. And even some of them turned out to be revivable.

The big key to success is to plant them properly. But I was recently astonished (and a little chagrined) to see that we had not yet covered those basics in a Question of the Week. So let's review the ten essential steps for rose planting success:

1. Soak bare roots in water for a few hours first. Bare root roses can be pretty dried out by the time they reach gardeners. So before you do anything else, place each bare root in a bucket of water for a while to re-hydrate the plant. This isn't necessary for transplants (unless you don't replant them right away, like SOME people I know) or roses purchased in containers.

2. Dig a wide hole in a spot that gets morning sun and good airflow. Because of their genetics (many 'parent plants' came from desert environments) some roses are highly disease-prone, especially when their leaves get wet. Placing them where they receive the very first dew-drying rays of the morning sun can mean the difference between rosaceous happiness and bad news black spot. Good air circulation is also important. If necessary, prune away overgrown trees and shrubs nearby. If you can only plant in a crowded area that only gets afternoon sun, grow hostas instead. Oh, and make the hole nice and wide so the roots can spread out—not deep; you want the stalk to be nice and high, not buried.

3. If you garden in clay, break up the soil at bottom of hole for drainage. Use a garden fork, pry-bar or small explosives to make sure the roots don't sit in water.

4. Build a 'cone' of compost in the center of the hole. This provides some nice natural nutrients at the root zone, insures that the plant is elevated in the hole, and—most importantly—is also good luck, which we gardeners need more than normal people.

5. Spread the roots out overtop of the cone and plant the rose high, not low in the ground. Unless it's raining, do this in the evening; NEVER first thing in the morning, so that the plant can acclimate a bit before its first day of broiling sun. The planted rose should look like an octopus sitting up on a rock; this is the proper way to plant, continues the good luck thing and looks cute as all get out. If you use wood mulch, take a picture; this will be the best it ever looks. And did I tell you to plant at the same height as in the container or higher? Good; are you listening yet?

6. Fill the hole back up with native soil. Follow the modern advice for planting trees and DON'T surround the rose's roots with an island of rich soil. By filling the hole back up with what you have in the rest of the yard, you'll encourage the plant to send its roots outward instead of staying nested in a little bubble of good stuff.

7. Cover the soil around the planted rose with a one-inch thick mulch of compost; don't touch the stem and don't use any kind of wood or bark mulch. The compost will prevent weeds, feed the plant, slowly improve your soil, and prevent the breeding of disease spores. No wood chips, 'triple premium shredded bark', root mulch or that God-awful dyed stuff! Diseases like black spot and mildew LOVE wood mulch; its like an incubator for them. And if you use rubber mulch you're not allowed to listen to the show anymore.

8. Let a hose drip gently at the base of each plant for a few hours after planting; repeat three times a week if we get no rain. Never wet the plant when you water; always water at the base. Deep, slow waterings are ideal. Don't water if we get lots of rain, but be prepared to soak the root zone this way all summer long during droughts. Most first year plant losses are due to UNDERwatering. But water normally (that's one long deep watering once a week; see THIS PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK FOR DETAILS) in subsequent years. Most established plants are lost to OVERwatering.

9. Use no chemical plant food. Toxic chemical fertilizers like Miracle-Grow and Osmocote cause rapid weak growth that is very attractive to pests and disease. Instead:

10. Freshen up that compost with another inch every two months the rose is actively growing. If you're in the mid-South or lower, make it two inches. And remove the old mulch and put a new inch of compost down once a month if disease is or has been a problem, it's a wet year, and/or the plants are in a less than ideal location.

You'll find lots more rose-disease-prevention info in THIS PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK.

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