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Getting Started with Roses in Saratoga

Whenever someone says they like to garden, they usually mention growing roses. Fortunately the climate here in Silicon Valley is very cooperative. The bible of California gardening, Sunset Magazine, puts this region on the border of the climate zones 15 and 16. These zones share mild winters, summer afternoon winds, and warm, but not too hot, summer temperatures. I've found the greatest climate challenge to come from hot summer winds that burn the flowers and dry out the soil. During these hot Santa Ana winds, I make sure the roses get extra water.

What kind of rose stock?

But before you have to deal with extra water to combat hot summer winds, you need to get some roses in the ground. Depending on the time of year, you have several choices of plants to buy. During the months of December and January and sometimes as late as February, you'll find bare root roses in garden centers (in packages like the photo below). At other times of the year, the only rose plants available are container-grown plants. My preference is to wait until I can buy bare-root roses even though there are advantages to buying a container grown rose bush. For a more detailed explanation, click on the tabs below.

  • Bare-Root Roses
  • Container-Grown Roses
  • Garden Center or Mail-Order?
bare-root rose bush

Bare root roses have been grown by commercial growers and then dug up with just their roots and packaged usually in a mixture of sawdust and peat moss. The outer wrapping of the plant is usually plastic to keep the root area moist. If you buy these from a local merchant look very carefully at the root packaging.

If package seems very dry and there are shavings appearing, then it's possible the root has dried out and probably won't grow. On the other hand, some garden centers water these root bags and they can become water-logged and will not grow either. Judging the wetness/dryness of the root bag is tricky. Therefore, the best thing to do is to buy bare root roses when they first appear in the garden center since they won't have dried out and to buy from a reputable merchant that guarantees their plants.

Look at the rose canes carefully. Often the stems are covered in a soft wax to protect them. You want to see several strong canes about the size of your finger or larger coming out of a central knot at the bottom of the plant. You don't want to see a mass of small, thin stalks that are bendable. You also don't want to see stalks that have been damaged or cut or have their bark removed. If they've started to leaf out, then you need to move quickly to get them planted.

Here's a guide on selecting and planting bare root roses (pdf PDF icon )from the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Tulare-Kings Co. that you might find useful.

Outside of the bare root planting period of January and February, roses are available as container-grown roses. In many cases these are the same roses distributed as bare-root, but planted in containers by your local garden center when the unsold ones start to sprout, usually in at least 5 gallon size.

One of the benefits of buying a container-grown rose is that you can the quality of the plant. Check that the leaves are dark green without any yellow veins. Check the undersides of the leaves for dark spots (indicating disease) or bugs themselves. Hopefully the plant is in bloom, so you can see the actual shape and color. The buds on the plant should look healthy and not be shriveled up or have darks spots or holes. Particularly if you're trying to match a color scheme or fill-in an empty hole in a landscaping plan, seeing the shape and color maybe very helpful.

This article from the University of Minnesota Extension has some good tips on buying container grown plants.

Garden centers usually clear out remaining plants around Labor Day, so you might be able to pick up some really nice plants at discount. This is the time to shop at high quality garden centers and pick up something special at a good price.

Besides the type of root stock you want, choosing where to buy them can be challenging. If you're just starting out in gardening or roses, then your local garden center might be a good place to start. Many have trained horticulturists on staff who can advise you about type of rose, growing conditions and overall care. While a local garden center might not have all latest or unusual varieties, most have a good selection of bare root roses in January or February and will have container-grown roses through out the growing season. Here in the Saratoga area, I always check out Yamagami's nursery on Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road. They will have the newest varieties and a large selection of roses. Likewise, Summerwinds also on Saratoga-Sunnyvale has a good selection of bare root roses. I find the garden centers at Home Depot and Loew's to be hit or miss. The store on Saratoga-Sunnyvale is pretty good, but their selection is limited to common varieties compared to Yamagami's or Summerwinds.

Once you have a few roses planted and you begin looking online or in catalogs at roses, you'll find that there are hundreds of varieties. Online or catalogs are probably the only place to find it. I've bought some bare root stock online with good results, but never a container grown plant. Maybe readers can send me recommendations of other garden centers and online or catalog resources. Just add them in the comments box on the Contact Us page.

Location, Location, Location

From my experience, success with roses depends primarily on two things: soil and location. Choose your location carefully. After planting the soil can be amended, but it's hard to change the environment of your location without transplanting. Most guide books will tell you roses need about six hours of sun, essentially full sun, unless you're in an extremely hot climate. Therefore under that huge spreading oak or pine tree would not be suitable. You might consider some afternoon shade if your planting location is in a very hot, dry or in a windy area.

Don't crowd the rose bushes. Leave some space between them. It's surprising how large an area they cover, so give them enough space (generally 5-6 feet apart) to allow air to circulate around them. This will help prevent diseases such as mildew, black spot and others. While you do want some air circulation, avoid windy corridors that can ruin your flowers and necessitate frequent watering. If your space is limited, then keep the pruning sheers handy to keep them trimmed.

Make sure your location has a good source of water. Roses like regular deep watering without leaving standing water. If your soil is very hard or otherwise poor, you might want to consider a raised bed. Also, I was told very early in my gardening days, to never let the roses go to bed with wet feet (roots). In other words, don't give them that thorough soaking late in the afternoon or early evening. Mine are on the edge of a lawn area with a sprinkler system set to water before 6 a.m. To keep the soil from going bone dry in the hot summer months, add a layer of mulch or chips. It also makes the planting area look very neat and finished.

Planting Directions

Check out the next section Planting Roses (coming soon) for specific instructions on how to plant both bare-root roses and container grown plants.