15th January 2014
Expert advice from David Austin Roses.
Roses are seen by many as a difficult plant to grow, one that needs specialist treatment. My neighbour was a classic example. he was sure he wouldn’t be able to grow roses because of the difficulty of pruning them. I insisted he try a few, gave him a few hints, told him how easy it was and now, of course, he is delighted with them.
The problem may well have started in the 19th century when many of the roses, and especially the Teas and Hybrid Perpetuals, were very weak and disease prone (just about all have disappeared now) and they undoubtedly did need a great deal of encouragement to keep them going. It didn’t improve in the first half of the 20th century when most of the Hybrid Teas were similarly poor. It wasn’t until the introduction of Peace in 1945, that the situation started to improve. Many of the roses (especially the Old, English and modern shrubs) being offered by nurseryman today are much tougher by comparison and are easy to grow.
The easiest way to grow a rose well is to choose a strong and reliable variety. With so many varieties available it is often just as easy to choose a beautiful rose that is tough and reliable as it is one that is weak and disease prone. So do your research, seek advice locally and from nurserymen.
Choosing a Position
Like most other garden plants, roses hate too much competition at the roots especially in the first 2 or 3 years while they are getting established. The roots of the already established plant will take full advantage of your efforts to improve the soil, leaving little for the rose. An overhanging canopy of leaves will not be appreciated by roses either. So don’t plant them too close to trees and shrubs.
As long as it is a bright position many roses do not require too many hours of direct sun each day - about 4 hours is sufficient for many varieties especially the English Roses, Old Roses and other shrub roses.
Roses should easily live for 10-15 years so it is well worth putting some extra effort in preparing the soil. Roses love lots of organic matter, so incorporate a generous quantity of well rotted manure, garden compost or sol improver into the soil to a depth of 18”/45cm before planting. The addition of some bone meal will also help. In recent years mycorrhizal fungi have become readily available and are definitely worth sprinkling onto the roots at planting time. They form a very close association with the rose roots and swap water and nutrients for sugars.
Plant the rose with the bud union about 2”(5cm) BELOW ground level. This will help to prevent wind rock and encourage rooting from the base of the stems.
During the Growing Season
While the roses are still young, keep a sharp look out for invading roots of neighbouring plants and, of course, keep them free of weeds. Once they are established you can be a bit more relaxed and, in a mixed border, allow some and interesting and intimate combinations to develop.
One of the easiest and most effective ways of improving the growth and flowering ability of your roses is to make sure there is always plenty of moisture around the roots. So if the soil starts to dry out, especially during the spring or summer give it a good, deep soaking.
An annual mulch of well rotted manure or compost applied each spring will also help keep the soil moist and cool and will also feed the soil. The latter is a vital ingredient in keeping any plant, and particularly roses, happy. It will help them to fight off pests and diseases without the need for so much (if any) input in terms of sprays.
Roses appreciate a fairly rich soil, especially the repeat flowering varieties, therefore apply some fertiliser in late March or early April and again (if repeat flowering) in June. We have our own David Austin rose food which is very effective, it is organically based and releases its nutrients over a number of weeks. There is more and more evidence that seaweed is extremely beneficial to roses and, indeed, most plants so look out for a fertiliser that contains it.
Pruning is easy. The 2 main deciding factors are:
1. How tall do you want the rose to grow?
2. Does the variety repeat flower or not?
The aim is to encourage the rose to flower as freely as possible, produce good quality blooms and, very importantly, be an attractive and appropriate size and shape.
Pruning is also an excellent aid in the fight against disease. So the first step is to cut out any stems that are dead, diseased or rubbing against each other and any particularly weak growth. Also look for the oldest stems, cutting them out will encourage stronger young shoots which will stay healthier and produce more flowers. The next step depends on what type of rose you have.
The remaining stems need to be cut down by a certain amount according to the roses’ ability to repeat flower and how tall you want them to grow. Remember also that if you prune too hard you will lose a very important part of a shrub rose’s character – the attractive, rather informal growth. It is often a good idea to leave all but the very weakest side shoots.
Roses that do not repeat flower, such as the gallicas, damasks, albas etc. bloom on the previous season’s growth. If you prune too hard you will get few or no flowers, so take about a quarter to a third off.
Repeat flowering shrub roses such as the English Roses and most 20th century shrub roses can flower either on the previous season’s growth or from new stems that come right from the base. So you can prune these a bit harder - down to about half, although, somewhere between one third and two thirds is fine.
Bush roses - Hybrid Teas and Floribundas - should be pruned harder, down to a third or even less, harder pruning will tend to encourage fewer but finer flowers. Cutting out the weaker stems is more important with these roses than the shrub roses.
Climbers flower on side shoots, these should be cut back to 3 or 4 buds. If possible train some of the main stems at an angle to encourage side shoots and hence more flowers. Only when the main shoots are a few years old and reducing in vigour should they be cut out, hopefully to be replaced by young growth.
Ramblers should be left to ramble at will unless you need to constrain them, in which case, prune them as climbers although you may need to be more rigorous in the removal of main stems.
Pruning should be followed by a thorough clean up of all the fallen leaves and cut stems.
The best time to prune roses is in the period of maximum dormancy which is usually over Christmas and on into January and February. Any later and you are likely to be cutting off significantly sized young shoots. This will be a waste of valuable energy and will encourage soft new shoots that are more likely to be damaged by late frosts.
The position and angle of cut has been a major issue in the past but we certainly do not worry about it when we prune our thousands of roses here at the nursery and I think the results speak for themselves. If you have the time and you want to get it just right the cut should be made just above the bud and at a slight angle away from it.
Pests and Diseases
The incidence of diseases is very much controlled by the genetic resistance of the rose and hence the importance of choosing disease resistant varieties. The better a rose is looked after the healthier it will be so good feeding, watering and pruning are all
helpful. If you have a number of roses in your garden and there are one or two that are particularly unhealthy then consider digging them and replacing with healthier specimens. Spraying is an option although you don’t have to use fungicides, foliar feeds like Maxi Crop and SB Plant Invigorator can also be very effective.
The main pest in this country is aphids and they are easy to deal with. You can of course spray them but I always find it easier to deal with them by squashing with finger and thumb or knocking them off with a strong jet of water. Beneficial insects are also very effective so do whatever you can to encourage them into the garden.
I hope this will encourage you and maybe your doubting neighbours too, to plant some more roses and also to grow them well.
David Austin Roses is one of the world's premier rose growers. At their Shropshire nursery they have created nearly 200 new types of English rose and they have won 14 RHS gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. (Pictured: Founder, David CH Austin and his son David JC Austin.
Order their rose catalogue HERE
To order roses online or to find out more about visiting their rose gardens and nursery visit;
Taking the Myth out of Growing Roses
Rose - Munstead Wood
Rose - Charlotte in a mixed border