Time to Uncover the Rose Garden

Who doesn’t love a warm winter blanket? With unseasonably cold temperatures continuing into early April, that blanket has been especially welcome this year. If you are like me, though, you just can’t wait for that first day when you lose the covers and open the windows. It is that breath of fresh air that tells us summer is just around the corner.

PHOTO: A view of the roses near the education building.
Roses under a warm winter blanket of mulch.

Our Krasberg Rose Garden is ready for its breath of fresh air, too. All winter, many of our roses have been under their warm blanket of composted horse manure. Compost protects roses from the harsh winter winds and freeze and thaw cycles that can be deadly to many cultivars.

As the hours of sunlight increase and daytime temperatures get warmer, however, we need to start inspecting our roses for signs that it is time to remove the compost and prepare the roses for the beauty yet to come.

The process is fairly straightforward. In late March, or whenever we have had several warm days with limited risk of a killing frost, we use our hands to carefully remove the thawed compost from around a rose bush. We need to inspect several bushes because some areas of our Garden thaw and start actively growing earlier than others.

PHOTO: A rose with new spring growth.
New growth from the base of the plant.

We look for yellow, bright green or reddish growth around the base of the plant — these are new rose canes. If we do not see any new growth or if new growth is still very small, we may cover the roses for a few more days. The warm compost encourages rose bushes to break dormancy.

However, if we see new growth and it is an inch or longer, then is it time to completely remove the compost and let the canes grow freely. The sooner this new growth begins to photosynthesize in the sun, the healthier and stronger your plant will be the rest of season. Remember that this new growth is very fragile, so we use gentle care when removing the compost.

PHOTO: Rose before Pruning
Look for black canes that indicate they are dead.

Once we remove the compost, our team then prunes the canes for optimum health. We first remove any cane that is black or brown — these are dead or dying — and anything that looks diseased.

From there, we prune the shrub until it has five or six healthy, large canes that are at least the diameter of a pencil. The pruning should result in an open center, with the top bud on each remaining cane facing away from the center of the plant. The open center maximizes the amount of sunshine and air circulation within the plant — important components to plant growth and disease prevention.

We also take time to frequently disinfect our pruning tools as we work through this late-winter chore. Tools can easily transfer diseases from one rose shrub to another, so sanitation is very important. Mix a solution of 10 percent rubbing alcohol or bleach and 90 percent water in a spray bottle to spray on your tools.

PHOTO: The final rose after spring pruning.
After pruning, the remaining canes look healthy.

By taking a few simple steps like these right now, the rose bushes will be on their way to beautiful blooms in June. Now that’s a breath of fresh air.

You can learn more about rose care with a class at the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Click here to see what classes are currently available.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Published by

Tom Soulsby

Tom Soulsby is a senior horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden and is responsible for the Krasberg Rose and Heritage Gardens, as well as the Linden Allée. He also supervises several other Garden areas. Tom also performs landscape and design work for private businesses and residences throughout the Chicago area. Prior to pursuing his lifelong passion and sharing his love for gardening with others, Tom was a successful business professional with nearly 20 years of corporate and small business experience. Tom holds a B.S. in Business Management and Administration from Bradley University. He is also a graduate of the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden, where he received his formal horticulture education.

5 thoughts on “Time to Uncover the Rose Garden”

  1. Excellent article.Clear, easy to understand, and accurate. I have been growing hybrid T roses in my back yard for over 40 years. One of them, Proud Land from J & P is 42 years old. Many of my roses have come from the annual Plant Sale.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Art. ‘Proud Land’ is a wonderful rose. One of its parents is ‘Chrysler Imperial’, one of my favorites.

  2. These are some helpful tips for the rose grower. It’s good to know how to prune your roses. When I was growing up, my father had some beautiful climbing rose bushes on the front trellises of our house. Every year our house looked great while those roses were in bloom.

  3. Ok, 2017 February, temp in 60’s this week uncover or don’t uncover rose tree. Once I do uncover how much do I prune the rose tree. Not shrub, tree.

    1. Hi Laura, thank you for the question. I am assuming you live in the Chicago area, so my answer will be appropriate for Chicago.

      Since the temperatures are unseasonably warm, and since there is generally more cold weather to come at this time of the year, I would suggest leaving the roses covered. I suspect we will get another cold snap that could be damaging to unprotected roses.

      In about 3 weeks (mid-March), start checking your tree for new growth. Once you see it, I think it would then be fine to uncover your tree.

      Pruning will depend on the current condition on the tree and your ultimate goal. Generally speaking, I would prune out any dead or damages stems, and then reduce the remaining stems to about 8″.

      Happy rose gardening!


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