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Rose Care

Choosing a Rose for Your Garden

"A Rose is a Rose is a . . . What Kind Should You Buy?"
Photos and article by OCRS Master Rosarian Carolyn Elgar

   Every year rose growers begin to think about what roses they may add to their gardens during the next growing season. And, as if that were not enough to mull over, the gardener also has to determine what kind of plants to order: grafted or own-root, bare-root or container roses. What is the difference, and what is the best choice?


     Growers have been producing grafted roses for many years. A grafted rose is a plant that is actually two varieties. The top of the bush is the desired variety while the bottom of it is another rose that consistently produces roots that do well in our climate. These bottom roses are called rootstock. Rootstock roses are planted in the growers’ fields in the fall. The following April another rose, either a new hybridized variety or an established one, is grafted to the rootstock rose. The place where the rootstock joins the new variety is called the bud union. The bushes continue to grow together until October and November when the rootstocks’ canes are cut away. The new roses are cared for in the fields for a year; in October of the second year they are removed from the fields by machine. Their roots are cleaned and they are kept in cold storage until they are shipped to nurseries. Grafted roses allow large growers to produce varieties in a time and expense efficient manner; continually growing rootstock roses eliminates the need to provide space for each variety to grow. The time needed for the bush to develop is shortened since the roots are already developed and waiting for it. Grafted roses usually have a head start over own-root roses as they have been growing for a longer time. The impatient gardener who does not want to wait three years to see a well developed plant will be happier with grafted roses. 


     Roses do not have to be grafted. Some growers clone new plants from the soft wood of established varieties and allow them to develop their own roots. There is no industry standard as to how long the plants grow before they are shipped; some may be as young as six to eight months. Miniature roses and special classes, such as Old Garden roses, Rugosas, or Hybrid Musk roses are most often own-root and are shipped in plastic pots or sleeves. Smaller growers can find their niche in offering own-root roses and hard-to-find varieties. Many nurseries and some rosarians claim own-root roses are healthier than grafted roses and less susceptible to the viruses that may be spread by rootstock in grafted roses. In addition, own-root roses are usually less expensive to order. But own-root roses are often smaller and younger than grafted roses. 


     Bare-root roses can be grafted or own-root. The dormant plants are shipped early in the growing season, from January to April. The roots are either bare or protected by some kind of non-soil packing. Nurseries receive them in bundles in large boxes and the staff separates them. The plants may then be offered for sale to the public as bare-root roses. Bare-root roses are less expensive because they are dormant and not potted. Many rose varieties and unusual specimens are available for ordering as bare-roots. At the nursery it is easy to inspect the plant’s roots; healthy roots are light brown or tan and bend easily. Dead roots are dark brown and snap when bent. The roots should not be dried out, and there should be large ones as well as fibrous ones, which will develop the feeder roots. Bare-root roses are best displayed at a nursery in beds of sawdust; the customer can easily lift the plant to inspect the roots. Bare-roots in plastic bags often have their roots trimmed considerably; the customer must feel for the roots through the plastic. 

     Roses in containers can be purchased later in the season, after March. The most popular rose varieties are available in pots. Roses in containers are often bare-roots that are either potted initially by the grower or later by the nursery. The plants are allowed to develop feeder roots in the potting soil, foliage develops, and there may be buds or blooms on the bush. The health of the rose depends on how much care is taken in its potting; for example, Rogers’ Gardens pots all their roses in specially ordered soil with mychorizzae added to the mix. 

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     Whatever kind of bush the customer buys, the key to success is the health of the plant. The American Association of Nurserymen has established standards by which roses are graded. A grade one rose must have three or more strong canes that originate or branch within three inches of the bud union. In bare-roots, two of these canes should extend six to eight inches above the bud union and be around one half inch thick. A grade one and a half rose is a little smaller, with shorter canes. A grade two rose is still smaller and is not a good purchase. At a retail store, container roses that are a grade one may have canes that are shorter than bare-roots, but are no less than four inches taller than the bud union. They should be in a two gallon pot. Pull on the bush gently; if the roots are established in the pot, there should be some resistance. Foliage should be abundant and healthy; this is more important than the number of buds on the bush. Overall, personal needs will dictate the choice. Special varieties, own-root roses, and less expensive plants, as well as the ability to plant early in the season, are the advantages of bare-root purchases. Larger plants, observable foliage, and last minute purchases are the rewards for the container rose buyer. Many rosarians will eventually purchase all of these choices: grafted, ownroot, bare-root, or container roses. After a few years in the garden, if the variety does well, no one remembers how it started.

From the Orange County Rose Society Rose Gazette

Rose pictured at top of page: Marilyn Monroe (Hybrid Tea). Photo by Dorothy Birsic

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