Caring for Roses in Spring

Tips for Warm and Cold Climates

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Caring for roses has a reputation as a challenging undertaking, but roses will keep growing and blooming even if gardeners neglect them entirely. They do, however, benefit from some extra attention. Any efforts you make in tending to your roses in the early spring can mean that you'll have fewer problems to navigate during the growing season.

Remove Winter Rose Protection

The first thing to do for your roses in the spring is to remove any winter rose protection you applied last fall. Rake off the soil or mulch that was used to protect the graft union and remove any debris or leaves that were used as insulation.

Prune Spring Roses

Not all types of roses require pruning (other than for clean-up and size control), but if you're going to trim back your roses, early spring is an ideal time. Pruning before the leaf buds open causes the rose bush to put its full energy into new growth.

Warm Climate Rose Care

Spring pruning in warm climates can start in January. Gardeners in areas that don’t necessarily freeze during the winter but still have a prolonged period of cold weather can prune according to the type of rose they are growing.

Roses grown in areas with warm winters, like Florida and Southern California, don’t necessarily need to be pruned at all. But doing some thinning is advisable and always remove any dead or diseased wood.

Another technique that gardeners in warm areas can try is to remove all the leaves from their rose bushes when they do their spring pruning. This fools the rose into a brief period of dormancy and lets it start fresh for the season. It’s also a good way to ensure you get rid of lingering diseases and insect eggs. Be sure to rake and remove all debris from the rose bed.

Cold Climate Rose Care

Roses grown in areas that get freezing winter temperatures should not be pruned until about April, or the canes could suffer more winter damage. Once the leaf buds begin to swell on the bush (usually around the time Forsythia bushes start to bloom), it's safe to prune.

Holland, Goirle, woman using pruning shears for cutting rose
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Feeding Roses in Spring

As with most plants, roses enjoy a good feeding in the spring, when they're actively growing and need nutrition. You can give them their first fertilization at pruning time. There are several good rose foods that you can use, but a general all-purpose fertilizer will also suffice. Slow-release fertilizers will need to be applied less frequently than water-soluble fertilizers.

Many rose gardeners also like to give their roses a handful (about 1/4 cup) of Epsom salts at feeding time. Whether the extra dose of magnesium really benefits the plants has never been proven, but many experienced gardeners swear by it.

If you prefer to mix your own rose food, members of the Rose Society share several of their own recipes.

For established rose bushes, you can balance ingredients such as:

  • 1 cup cottonseed meal
  • 1 cup bone meal or superphosphate
  • 1/2 cup blood meal
  • 1/4 cup Epsom salts

Spread the mixture around the perimeter of the rose bush, at the drip line, gently scratch it into the soil, and water thoroughly.

Spraying to Prevent Rose Diseases

Unfortunately, roses tend to have a proclivity for fungus diseases. Hopefully, you’ve chosen roses that are disease resistant and suited to your area. Preventative spraying in the spring is something to be considered, even for roses grown organically. Lime sulfur is a good choice for spring spraying. It will generally kill any fungus spores like "black spot" that may have over-wintered. An additional spray of horticultural oil will help to smother any insect eggs and larva. An additional spray of horticultural oil will help to smother any insect eggs and larva.

These spring rose care efforts should get your roses off to a good, healthy start for the season. In addition to pruning, fertilizing, and spraying, make sure your roses get plenty of water and monitor them regularly for signs of problems. They should reward you all season for the care you took in the spring.

Pest control technician using high pressure spray gun and hose on flowers and lawns
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  1. Spring Pruning of Roses. Purdue University Website