Growing Roses in Pots for Beginners

container gardening picture of knock out rose with rosemary by P. Allen Smith
Knock Out Rose with Rosemary in a Container 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 in containers. For example, unless you put it against a trellis or otherwise provide support, one of the climbing roses would be a poor choice to pot up as it will sprawl everywhere.

Grandifloras live up to their name and tend to be on the taller side in addition to large blooms. Shrub roses, species roses and older cultivars of roses also reach dimensions that make it difficult to grow in a contained space. Leave the hybrid teas to your landscape as they do not usually grow well in pots.

Four types of roses that are especially suitable for containers are:

  • Groundcover These stay low and look lovely spilling over the edges of your container. Depending on the size of your pot and the groundcover variety, you could also possibly use it as a border around a larger plant.

  • Miniature Since these types of roses have been cultivated to stay on the small side, 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 that root rot is less likely, but is heavy enough to hold some water. The container needs to have enough drainage holes so that the excess water can flow out.

    However, this also means that water runs through it relatively quickly and the plant can dry out faster.

    Keep an eye 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 want to keep them moist, not wet--the soil should have as much moisture as a rung out sponge. You will also have more success if you water outside of the period of 10 AM - 6 PM, as this is when it is usually hottest in the day and evaporation is accelerated. As much as possible, try to keep the water off the leaves of roses as wet leaves can lead to powdery mildew and other fungi and disease. 

    Drip irrigation can also be a successful way to keep your container rose happy. These systems are designed to deliver the water directly to the root zone instead of spraying 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 they have access to all of the food that they need for proper growth. Be sure to follow the directions as over-fertilizing can be as bad or worse than not feeding at all.   Apply 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 and Change the Soil Every Few Years

    If you start with a miniature rose or one that is at maturity, you may not need to repot 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, go an extra step and change out the soil if it has been there for more than two years. The plant has 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, so this may potentially damage the rose.

    Protect From Freezing Temperature

    Every fall, those in cooler zones should plan out 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. 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 a zone 4. 

    Options available include:

    • Add mulch around the base --  If the weather is just a little chillier than your plant is rated, 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 can affect your rose.
    • Bury it in the ground --  Another option, if you have the space, 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 in Fall If you have room, and enough sun, your rose may enjoy spending winters inside your garage or home. Hardening them off first is required to help them acclimate to the new environment as you switch them between locations.

    Pests and Diseases That Love Roses

    The most common insect that you will find on your roses is the aphid. They usually congregate on the buds and leaves. Aphids suck out juices, making the affected parts wither. Start first by using a hose to spray the aphids off. Do this in the morning so that the plant has time to dry off as otherwise, fungal diseases and rots may occur. You can also pick them off by hand.

    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. These work 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.