In the Garden:
Even if you remove the leaves from your roses this fall, leave the jewel-like rose hips for the birds.
Putting the Roses to Bed
Cold fall winds are trying to ease us into winter, so I'm gathering the materials I need to protect borderline hardy plants before the deep freeze sets in. I cover my lavender and agastache with pine boughs, but the plants that get the most winter protection in my garden are the roses.
Here in zone 4 I could play it safe by only planting super-hardy rugosa roses or those grown on their own rootstocks, but sometimes I rebel against the limitations of my climate and push the envelope, especially when I'm tempted by a pretty face or an arresting fragrance. Especially if the flowers are peach or apricot. Or coral. Or yellow.
All roses need some fall clean-up to help keep insects and disease from returning next year, and some plants need a little extra TLC to get to the other side of winter.
Giving Roses the Once-Over
After roses have dropped most of their leaves, it's time to pick off the rest. All kinds of damage can be reduced by removing the dead leaves that harbor disease organisms and overwintering insects. I have more trouble with rose slugs than with any other insect pest. These are sawfly larvae -- tiny green worms that feed on the leaves and turn them into clear, papery remnants of their former selves. So I remove all the leaves from the plant and from the soil beneath, including the top layer of mulch and dispose of this far from the garden. This is all I do for the hardy climbing rose, the rugosas, and the shrub roses. The grafted roses get more attention.
Protecting the Graft
Grafted roses are a combination of the desired variety of rose on the top and a fast-growing variety on the bottom. You can tell a grafted rose by the swollen, knobby area near the base of the plant. Grafting is a way of producing more rose plants more quickly. But the graft union itself can be damaged by cold, and some of the common rootstocks are not especially hardy varieties. So these plants need lots of insulation from the cold as well as from fluctuating temperatures.
Bark mulch, evergreen boughs, straw, and hay all provide good protection. I prefer bark mulch because it's less messy, stays in place, and is easier to remove in spring. You can use oak leaves or other types that don't pack down easily like maple leaves do, but if the mulch gets compressed or holds too much water, the base of the plant can rot. Ideally, you should cover the graft with 1 foot of mulch.
You can leave the piled mulch as is or contain it by surrounding the plant with some type of enclosure, such as chicken wire bent into a cylinder. You may need to tie up some of the canes to make room for the enclosure. Then fill it with mulch to the desired depth.
Another option is to place four stakes around your plant and wrap burlap around them to hold the mulch in place and break the wind. Avoid the styrofoam rose cones without ventilation at the top because they absorb the sun's heat and can raise the temperature inside enough to injure your plants.
Reducing Wind Damage
Winter winds can damage rose canes both by whipping them around and breaking them, and also by drying out the canes. You might want to tie any long canes that extend above your typical snow cover, or cut them back to 2 to 3 feet long. To help prevent moisture loss, you can spray the canes with an antidessicant spray this fall and again whenever the temperature rises above freezing during the winter. These sprays can only be used at certain temperatures, so check the labels for instructions.
With any luck -- and a good insulating snow cover -- your roses will survive yet another winter. Even if you have to cut back some dead, blackened canes (I always do), your plants will quickly make up the loss and burst forth with new growth and blossoms.
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