Promising a Rose Garden

RoseRuthpinkgloves014In a garden of a hundred roses lies a botanical marvel. Ruth Roberts has filled her flowerbeds with roses–miniatures, shrubs, floribundas, hybrid tea, climbers and old garden roses. Many originated from rose cuttings. “See this climber,” Ruth says as she points to a vigorous six-foot rose studded with tiny pink buds, “it’s only three or four years old.”

Roseruthtools022Vegetable gardeners rely upon seeds, but rose lovers depend upon cuttings to increase their collections. Whether they want to add more roses of the same kind to their arbor, or borrow from a neighbor’s coveted garden, rose cuttings allow the frugal gardener a chance to blossom. The results are nearly magical. Even so, not all cuttings will survive and the best of intentions may go awry.

Months ago, I asked a seasoned gardener to show me how to grow a rose from a cutting. We chose a cane from one of his roses and he dutifully taught me to look for four nodes, the places where the leaves branch from the stem, with a spent blossom atop. He rolled the cut end in a hormone rooting mixture and pushed the two nodes closest to the cut end under the soil. We covered the top of the plastic pot with a plastic bag to keep in the moisture and I proudly carried the cutting home.

roseruthblossom009I placed the pot in a location that I thought was shady, just under a vigorous rose bush and waited. Within a few days, the cutting died. I removed the pot to a place under a tree with the intention of throwing it away when I got the time. One week later, I picked up the pot to discard it and noticed the rose had three tiny new leaves. The cutting had rebounded back to life and I felt a surge of elation. I left the plastic bag off for about 30 minutes, just in case the potting soil was too saturated. By the time I returned, within minutes, the cutting had died once again. Sigh.

The practice of growing roses from cuttings looks daunting. But I couldn’t give up. The quick flush of victory was nearly in my grasp. I needed more information, excellent advice and sage encouragement. I called Ruth Roberts.

roseruthherself033Ruth is a petite, soft-spoken gardener, whose expertise includes espaliering pear trees, growing an abundance of perennials and blackberries. Roses make up the backbone of her garden—row after row—each one marked with super permanent ink on a tiny nametag. “You get a lot of bang for your buck with roses,” she says, and a summer filled with blooms.

Ruth agreed to teach me her own tricks, which turned out to be simple enough and similar to what I had already learned. Rose cuttings require a few tried and true techniques and it’s in the understanding of basic rose horticulture where Ruth’s success lies. She knows the needs of nearly every rose and counts them as individuals rather than a mass. One will take more shade, another needs sun, more water, fertilizer or fussing.

“I like to plant a rose where I want it to grow,” she says, which will save the tiny plant from the shock of becoming newly acquainted to soil, light or competition from other plants. This is why she takes rose cuttings in the autumn only. “It’s not nearly so hot,” she explains, and the cutting will not come under the stress of losing water and wilting dramatically as did my cutting.

I arrived at Ruth’s home mid-morning, plastic pots in tow, filled to the brim with potting soil and a rooting hormone that states on the package it is designed to stimulate root growth for cuttings. On the patio table was a jar of water, more pots, plastic bags, shears, gardening gloves and pin-downs, a U-shaped metal nail that will hold the plastic bags in place. Her terracotta pots were soaking in a bucket of water.

roseruthstem012Then we set off for the garden. We were looking for a rose free from any mildew or disease, and one that had finished blooming. “That allows for more mature growth,” Ruth says, which means the stem will be woodier and less subject to diseases that burrow into tender green shoots. She cut a stem on a slant, “so that you have more area to take up water,” she says, and dropped the stem into a jar filled with water. She will snip off the top spent bloom, too, for the stem must absorb moisture from the humidity you will provide. We peered closely at the stem.

roseruthplasticbag019We will need two and possibly three nodes below the surface of the soil, two above. One by one, Ruth strips off the lower leaves. She dips the end in water and then rolls that end in the rooting hormone, up to about an inch. The stem is inserted into the potting soil and tamped down with pink-gloved nimble fingers. A pin-down is lodged into the soil alongside the rose cutting and a plastic bag is stretched over the pot. The pin-down will prevent the bag from crushing the cutting; the clear plastic bag will keep moisture around the rose. Within a few hours, moisture fills the interior of the bag. This is the only way to present a rose cutting to a friend.

roseruthjar048But that’s not the way Ruth likes to cultivate rose cuttings in her own garden. She has better luck planting the rose exactly where she wants it to grow. In September through October, Ruth begins to dig holes, filling them with mushroom compost and watering them well. She’ll use a Mason jar instead of a plastic bag. To keep the jar from cooking the small plantlet, she fills the jar with water, pours the water onto the grass and adds a handful of the mushroom compost to the jar interior. She’ll shake it a bit and the muddy soil will prevent scorching rays but still allow some sunlight into the jar.

Ruth follows the same procedure for the rose cutting that we used for a plastic pot. But this time, after the cutting has been placed into the soil, she will lodge the pin-down alongside the rose and place the jar over the cutting. It’s pushed into the soil, one or two inches, which makes it necessary to use a quart rather than pint jar. Ruth piles her bark mulch around the jar as a final anchor. She’ll water and care for her rose cutting just as she cares for all her roses throughout the winter. But she’ll not lift the jar until spring.

As experienced and knowledgeable as Ruth is about rose care, whether a rose will take root is partly up to chance. Some roses root more easily than others. Miniature and old garden roses fall into this category. Roses that struggle to grow in Colorado will fare no better as cuttings than their adult peers. Roses that grow vigorously in your garden are obvious choices.

roseruthgarden023And there may be other possibilities, too. Roses that grow spontaneously in your neighborhood or survive on old homesteads are great choices. Roses that appear to be wild are logical candidates. Seed from antique roses may have blown onto fertile soil and taken hold. You may be preserving an heirloom specimen that could be lost over time.

Rose lovers long to keep some old roses around, roses that you may never see in any catalogue or garden center. The rose family is vast and roses go in and out of fashion. Roses that your grandmother once grew may have characteristics of perfume, hardiness and longevity that gardeners now prize, although fancier roses may have edged them out of production.

Rose cuttings, for Ruth, have allowed her to indulge her love for roses, creating a collection that would be the center of attraction in a city botanic garden. Don’t scrimp, if you love roses, she advises; take many cuttings, knowing that some simply won’t survive. Trade cuttings with friends, chat with neighbors who look willing to let you snip a few of their roses. Join a rose society where members will share information and cuttings. Roses are a grand passion. “Don’t be satisfied with only one or two,” she says, “life is too short.”

Front Range Public Rose Gardens:

  • The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Complex, Public Rose Garden, 200 Jefferson County Parkway, Golden, 303-271-5477, open seven days a week.
  • Dushanbe Teahouse Garden in Boulder.

Colorado Rose Societies: