Pick of the bunch

by Xanthe White / 30 May, 2013
If you’re looking to add a rose bush or two to your garden, this is the perfect time to do it.

Roses always take me back to my grandmothers, a time when only widows wore black and it was okay to like pretty things. A scented rose would be sitting alongside old china while some crackling Mozart played on the record player, with perhaps a fire in the grate.

Roses are not very cool, they look good for only part of the year, bugs love them and they don’t always mix well with other plants, but I still like them. Most of all, I like their perfume, especially when raindrops sit in among the petals, touching your nose when you lean in for a sniff.

Most strongly scented roses seem to come in pink shades, ranging from the candy-cane tones of Rosa “Lilian Austin” and R “Pink Peace” to the subtle blush of R “Madame Alfred Carrière” and R “Margaret Merrill”, which could almost be called cream, except for its heart, which is as pink as a baby’s bottom. Perhaps the colour is the reason these roses are unlikely to be seen in design magazines. Colour aside, perfume in a garden seems as underrated these days as perhaps it used to be overrated. A deeply scented rose is a treat, but I wonder how many children know such perfume can be found in a single flower.

If, like me, you want a rose or two to tuck into a corner or ramble over a back fence, now is the time to plant them, as new-season roses, pruned and ready for planting, are arriving in garden centres. These roses are often bare-rooted (without soil) and need to be planted immediately, so prepare the ground before buying the plants.

When planting, don’t bury the crown, which is where the graft joins the rootstock. Ideally, you should leave a depth of about two fingers’ width between the base of the crown and the soil surface.

Roses are hungry plants and love rich organic matter. For every square metre of rose garden, dig in up to a bucket of compost – that’s about a bucketful per rose. At this time of year, fertiliser is unnecessary, as the plants will not really begin to grow until spring. But compost, which helps aerate soil and microbial activity, is needed year-round.

Start your feeding programme in spring, using sheep pellets as well as compost, as they will help condition the soil. Roses also benefit from general fertiliser, but use this as well as the organic options, because general fertilisers won’t create soil activity that assists plant health.

Roses hate competition, so leave room for mulch, which will help reduce weeds. But garlic, a companion plant that helps keep bugs at bay, will happily grow in a rose bed, so if you are growing for cut flowers, adding garlic plants, which also have attractive flowers, is a great way to get more blooms.

Weeding is best done by hand, as roses have delicate surface roots that will be damaged if you use a fork or hoe.

Now is the time to prune existing roses. Always cut above the leaf bud, ensuring your cut is angled away from the bud and that the lowest point of the cut is above where the bud emerges from the stem. This is so water will drain away from it. If you are not sure what a bud looks like, see the photo below. This small emerging point is where new season’s shoots will come from.

When pruning, ascertain the growth direction of the bud, as this will help determine the shape of your rose. To create a good open shape, prune to the first outward-facing bud. An open shape helps air circulate, which reduces the likelihood of disease and encourages sunlight into the centre of the plant, generally resulting in more flowers. (Most roses love sun, except some climbers, which are happy to have cool roots.)

When pruning roses, first remove dead material back to the crown, then cut off any crossed stems that make the shape untidy. You may also notice new canes shooting from the base, possibly with a red tinge; these can be removed, too.

People often ask how hard to prune roses. Recommendations vary from book to book and with the type of rose. I alternate hard pruning every couple of years with light pruning, but take the middle path if you can’t decide. The hardest prune for a rose is to remove half of it and the lightest prune involves removing a third, so anywhere in-between will be fine.

Main rose pruning should be done in winter, but during flowering repeated deadheading will encourage more blooms and better general health. Flower heads should be cut back to a bud with five leaves.

Careful pruning with clean, sharp secateurs and a good feeding programme will help reduce pest and disease spread.

Auckland is one of the hardest places in New Zealand to grow roses, but at Auckland Botanic Gardens, roses are grown organically, so if you’re looking for ideas for hardier varieties, this is a good place to start.

This year I’m going to secretly plant a Rosa “Madame Alfred Carrière” along the back fence, behind the nikau grove and flax, and hope it billows in the background long enough for me to pick a bunch or two for the kitchen table.

Send your questions to: goodtogrow@xwd.co.nz
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