The Q&A Archives: Winterizing Roses

Question: I have recently taken over the care of a home for an elderly relative, who was very partial to roses and has numerous rose bushes. As winter is quickly approaching and I've never had a rose garden before, I am concerned that I don't know what to do to preserve these beautiful flowers. Any information on winterizing this garden will be much appreciated.

Answer: The answer to your question really depends on what type of roses you have, however it would be safe to say that all roses will winter better with several inches of organic mulch such as shredded bark over their root zones. You should also remove any fallen foliage from the garden to try to head off any overwintering of pests or diseases.

Old fashioned shrub roses grown on their own roots (not grafted) should be fine as is, with some pruning in early spring to remove dead wood and possibly open the bush a bit for better air circulation. Hybrid tea roses, pillars, and climbers, however, may need more care than that for the winter. Hybrid teas in particular will also require intensive pruning in the spring to encourage new growth and better blooms. If you are facing these types of higher maintenance roses you might want to look at a basic book or two about roses. One I particularly like because it is straightforward and has excellent pruning diagrams (a picture is worth a thousand words!) is "Roses for Dummies" by Lance Walheim, ISBN 0-7645-5031-4.

In the meantime, here is some information you may find helpful:

Here is an excerpt from a column we recently had on
the National Gardening Association website about
winterizing roses. If you have any questions after you read it,
please feel free to post another question at the

"...If you haven't stopped fertilizing your roses yet, you
should stop now. Generally, it is a good idea to stop
fertilizing roses in August. A more specific rule of thumb is
to stop fertilizing your roses approximately 6 weeks before
the average first frost in your area. If you fertilize beyond
that date, you can get a flush of new growth on your rose
that is just going to get zapped. Sometimes a late application
can cause the rose to keep growing into fall and winter,
especially if autumn temperatures are on the warm side. This
isn't healthy for the rose, so try to stop fertilizing at the
appropriate time. To be on the safe side, I cut the my
"ladies" off the whole month of August.

Another practice you want to stop around August is
deadheading (I'm sure you already know what this is, but
just in case my husband is reading, that means removing the
spent blooms). The reason for this is you really want those
blooms to stay intact and form seed pods, or "hips". When
the roses form hips, the rose "knows" it is time to stop
growing and start going dormant. You really want your
roses to be in a full state of dormancy before the really cold
weather hits. Dormancy has usually occurred in our area by
Thanksgiving. Rose canes take on a purple hue when they
are dormant. Once your roses are dormant, it is time to
apply the winter protection.

The very first thing I do when protecting for winter is to do a
really good job of cleaning up the area where the roses are.
I remove all leaf litter from the ground, and the first 1-2" of
mulch. There are many diseases that will happily overwinter
(especially that vile destroyer of roses, Black Spot) and to
help prevent disease next season, you've got to do really
good housecleaning this season. I never add the leaf litter or
the discarded mulch to my compost heap, it is best to be on
the safe side and destroy it rather than risk adding any
diseased material to your heap. My next step (and this one
is a real pain in the neck) is to remove any leaves that are
still clinging on the canes. Most will have fallen by now, but
if there are any stragglers, off they go! I remove these
because I'm not very likely to go back out into the cold
periodically to check and see if they have fallen and remove

Next, soak the roses really well with the garden hose. The
roses need a big gulp before their long winter's nap.

What is done next depends on what type of rose you have
and what your preferred method is. In the interest of time
and space, I'm going to stick to the most common roses,
hybrid teas. Another reason I chose to address hybrid teas
is because most shrub roses, old roses, and quite a few
climbers and species roses can withstand freezing
temperatures with no protection. In other words, hybrid teas
are the wimps of the rose world.

Some folks cut back their hybrid teas severely during the
winter protection process. I prefer not to do this. I leave
them alone and do all the pruning in the spring. Everything
above the level of the protection is going to die back
anyway so this is just a step I skip at this point in time. As
you know, severe prunings can encourage new growth and
you really don't want that. Mainly, that is why I prefer this
method. In the past when I cut back the hybrid teas hard in
the fall prior to winter protection, they sometimes put out a
flush of new growth if the we had a period of warm
weather. You should do what works best for you.

Next comes the actual protection. There are many fancy,
schmancy contraptions on the market that you can buy to
wrap around your rose. I'm way too cheap for that. All you
need is some soil and mulch. Basically, just shovel some soil
into a mound at the base of the plant, the soil should go up
about 12" above the bud union (looks kind of like a knob or
a knuckle, this is where the rose was grafted to the
rootstock in the beginning of it's life). Then, cover the
mound of soil with about 12" of mulch. I use cypress mulch
but you could also use compost or straw. This volcano like
structure you have made keeps the ground frozen, and
strangely enough, that is exactly what you want. If the rose
is subjected to freezing and thawing, damage is sure to
result. Many people wrap this mound with chicken wire to
keep it intact over the winter. I've never done this, but if it
makes you feel more comfortable, or, if your rose is in a
spot where there is a great deal of wind or animals may dig
at it, you should probably add this step.

That wasn't so hard now was it? All that anxiety for nothing.
Your rose gardening is finished until the spring, or at least
until you see the forsythias in bloom, and what a relief that

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