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In the Garden

Getting Your Roses Ready for Winter

Winter. Brrrr. How could it be time to think about winter already? It seems like just yesterday I was planting young tomatoes in my vegetable garden. Now, it's time to rip out the remnants of the old tomato plants and throw them in the compost pile.

But what about the roses? What do you have to do to get roses ready for the coming winter? In this issue of In the Garden, we'll tell you how to winterize your roses -- that's if they need it. Curious? Read on...

At Spring Valley Roses, we specialize in winter hardy roses -- ones that will survive our Zone 4/3 winters without winter protection. Yes, there are lots of roses that you don't have to cover with those awful styrofoam cones.

Winterizing Hardy Roses

So, if you have some winter hardy roses in your garden, what do they need to get through the winter?

Usually, nothing.

Just leave them alone. They don't need to be cut back and they don't need to be covered if they are truly winter hardy in your climate. Save all your pruning for spring. An open wound on a rose cane that is exposed to the frozen rain and snow and cold, dry winds can suffer damage. If you have to prune to get a rose under control, be sure to seal the wound with a dab of vaseline.

But, if you think you need to do something for your roses, here's what you can do in the fall:

  1. Put a couple of shovelfulls of compost over the crown of the rose plant.
  2. Give your rose some non-nitrogen fertilizer. Late fall, after a hard freeze, is a good time to give your rose a dose of Epsom salts (about 1/2 cup per plant), along with rock phosphate (don't use bonemeal -- it attracts rodents) and maybe a little greensand for potassium. These fertilizers won't promote new growth on the canes, which can be hurt by frosts and winter. Instead, they will help promote root growth, which can continue well into December if the ground is mulched. And, they'll have a chance to work into the soil through freeze/thaw actions and be ready for your plants to use in the spring.
  3. Water well. A well hydrated plant can survive winter better than one that is dry and stressed.

And that's it for winter hardy roses. If you're not sure if your roses are hardy, then mound soil or compost about 6 inches over the crown for extra protection.

If this is your first year growing winter hardy roses, you may be surprised at what you find in the spring. Some roses may have winter-damaged or dead canes and others may not. We have found that the term "winter hardiness" can mean three things in the rose world:

  • Hardy to the tip (our personal favorite). None of the rose has any winter injury -- even when it drops below -40 degrees and the dry, cold winds whip it around all winter.
  • Hardy to the "snowline" or about 15 to 20 inches from the ground. The part of the rose above the "snowline" dies back, but the canes that are protected by the snow survive just fine.
  • Hardy to the crown. These roses die back to the ground, just like perennials. But, they rapidly regrow in the spring and start blooming perhaps a bit later than those that don't die back.

To avoid panic or dissapointment in the spring, try to find out just how hardy your roses are before you buy them. Then, you'll be sure to purchase something you can live with.

Winterizing Non-Winter Hardy Roses

Even though we don't sell roses that aren't winter hardy, we still get asked about how to prepare tender roses for the winter. First, the amount of preparation depends on two things:

  1. How cold does your winter get?
  2. What type of tender roses are you growing? Or, how much cold can they take?

If you live in Zone 4 or colder and you need to winterize Hybrid Tea or other tender roses, be prepared to give them complete protection. This takes alot of work and effort, but if you want to grow a palm tree in Alaska, then you have to accomodate its needs. You have two options:

  1. Minnesota Tip. Personally, I don't know how roses survive this technique, but I have friends who do this every fall and have beautiful Hybrid Tea roses the next spring. Here's what you do. Dig a trench to the side of the rose. Cut the canes back so the rose is no longer than 2 feet long. On the opposite side of the trench, dig up half of the rose' roots. Gently tip the rose into the trench. Completely cover the rose and its roots with about 6 inches of soil. Then, put leaves or pine boughs on top of the soil for extra protection. This technique works well, but you can't be guaranteed 100 percent success.

  2. Chicken Wire and Mounds. This is pretty easy to do and works on lots of roses. Make a "silo" out of chicken wire that will go around the circumference of your rose while leaving about a foot of clearance all the way around. Mound soil or compost over the crown of the rose about 8 inches deep. Then, backfill the chicken wire silo with leaves -- really pack them in for adequate insulation of the rose, making sure that the entire plant is covered. You may want to spray the rose with a mouse repellant before you pack in the leaves. Avoid using mouse bait poisons, if possible. This technique also can't guarantee 100 percent success.

If you live in Zone 5 or warmer, you may not need to provide as much protection. It's a good idea to ask your local rose society members for advice on preparing roses for winter in your area. You can locate your local rose society through the American Rose Society.

So, in summary, if your roses are winter hardy in your area, you don't have to do anything to protect them from winter. But, if you want you can throw some compost over the crown of the plant. If your roses aren't winter hardy, you'll need to give them complete protection.

Oh, and one last thing. Don't use styrofoam cones on your tender roses unless you cut off the top to provide air circulation (fill up the cone with leaves for insulation). On sunny days in the winter, those cones turn into little ovens that cause your rose to break dormancy. Then, when the thermometer plunges at night, major freeze damage happens. And styrofoam isn't very recyclable and it looks kinda' weird. Better to use a chicken wire silo...

This page was last updated January 11, 2014

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