Essential Tips for Growing Roses in Pots

A Beginner's Guide to Beautiful Container Flowers

container gardening picture of knock out rose with rosemary by P. Allen Smith
Photograph © Kerry Michaels

If you want to grow roses in your garden but don’t have space left, try growing them in containers. They can also add beautiful accents that brighten up your landscape and perfume the air.

Pick the Right Roses

Not all roses will work well when planted in pots. For example, unless you put it against a trellis or provide some other type of support, a climbing rose would be a poor choice as it will sprawl out everywhere. Likewise, grandifloras tend to be on the taller side and have large blooms, which can cause issues in containers. Shrub roses, species roses, and older rose cultivars reach dimensions that make it difficult to grow in a contained space as well. It's also best to leave the hybrid tea roses to your landscape as they do not usually grow well in pots.

However, there are four types of roses that are especially suitable for containers:

  • Groundcover: These stay low and look lovely when they spill over the edges of a container. Depending on the size of your pot and the groundcover variety, it may also be possible to use it as a border around a larger plant.
  • Miniature: These types of roses have been cultivated to stay on the small side, so they are naturally well suited to growing in containers.
  • Patio: If you want a rose that is not miniature, but not as big as a standard rose, try a patio rose. They are the type called floribunda, on a smaller scale.
  • Polyantha: These bear clusters of small roses on a shorter plant. Check the tag to make sure you are not purchasing a climbing type of polyantha rose.

Water Thoughtfully

There is a delicate balance to be maintained when you are planting roses (or any other plant) in containers. You want a potting medium that drains well enough to diminish the likelihood of root rot while being heavy enough to hold some water.

The container also needs to have enough drainage holes so the excess water can flow out. However, this means that water runs through it relatively quickly and the plant can dry out faster.

Keep an eye on your roses so you know when you need to water. A good general rule of thumb is to water when the top of the soil surface is dry. You also want to keep them moist, not wet; the soil should have as much moisture as a rung out sponge. 

  • You will have more success if you do not water between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. This is typically the hottest part of the day and when evaporation is accelerated.
  • As much as possible, try to keep water off the leaves. Wet leaves can lead to powdery mildew and other fungi and disease. 
  • Drip irrigation can be a great way to keep your container rose happy. These systems are designed to deliver the water directly to the root zone instead of spraying it over a general location.

Fertilize Regularly

When you place a rose within a finite amount of soil, it tends to use up all of the nutrients available. Apply fertilizer every other week to make sure that your plants have access to all of the food they need for proper growth.

Be sure to follow the directions as well. Over-fertilizing can be as bad or worse than not feeding at all. Apply it to the soil and not the leaves (unless the directions instruct you to do so) because foliage can be burned by the salts in fertilizers.

Repot Every Few Years

If you start with a miniature rose or one that is at maturity, you may not need to repot it for many years unless the roots start coming out the bottom or the pot breaks. With most other roses, though, you will need to change containers every few years as the plant grows.

While you are repotting, take an extra step and change out the soil if it has been there for more than two years. The plant will have depleted some of the nutrients and the soil has probably compacted, so a fresh batch will keep the nutrient level at an acceptable level.

Over time, salts and minerals can also accumulate in the soil from fertilizers. This can potentially damage the rose as well, but changing the soil should prevent that.

Protect From Freezing Temperature

Every fall, gardeners in cooler zones should plan what they will do to protect their container roses from the ravages of winter. Plants in pots get much colder than those in the ground so this is a very important step.

In order for your rose to be able to survive the winter, it should be rated at least two USDA hardiness zones colder than the one it will live in. For example, if you are in zone 6, you will need a rose that is rated for zone 4. 

To protect your potted rose, you have a few options:

  • Mulch the Base: If the weather is just a little chillier than your plant is rated for, you can add some mulch to the top of the container and mound it around the pot to add insulation. However, be sure to keep it away from the plant itself. If wet materials are constantly touching the trunk or branches, it greatly increases the chances that insects or diseases will affect your rose.
  • Bury It:  If you have space, another option is to dig a hole in your landscape and place the container inside. Replace the soil over the top of the container, again making sure the soil doesn't touch the crown (where the plant meets the roots). 
  • Build a Cold Frame: Even an unheated structure like a cold frame or sturdy hoop house can raise temperatures enough to avoid damage to your rose plant. 
  • Bring it Inside: If you have room, and enough sun, your rose may enjoy spending winters inside your garage or home. Hardening the plant off first is required to help it acclimate to the new environment as you switch locations.

    Pests and Diseases

    The most common insect that you will find on your roses is the aphid. They usually congregate on the buds and leaves where they suck out juices, making the affected parts wither.

    When you first spot aphids, start by using a hose to spray them off the plant. Do this in the morning so the rose has time to dry off before temperatures drop, which can promote fungal diseases and rot.

    You can also pick the aphids off by hand. This can be a tedious task if there are quite a few because they are tiny.

    Try a Rose Standard

    If you have ever seen a tree that looks like a lollipop, it is a form of topiary called a standard. They are created through careful pruning over the course of several years and it's a fun way to style potted roses. It works particularly well if you want to create focal points on a patio or walkway.

    Do not forget to add a stake for support or it may fall over.