Skip to main content

Whetstone Park of Roses, Columbus, OH, by M.E. Williams.

I am not really a gardener, but as I've mentioned before, I love my roses: a begonia or turnip could never inspire me, yet I'm happy to dig, weed, and water for hours to keep the Queen of Flowers happy. Roses have a reputation for being fussy, but aren't necessarily so. If you get hardy varieties that are appropriate for your planting zone, put them in good soil, do some basic winterizing, prune judiciously in the spring, and are careful about how much you water and fertilize them, rose maintenance shouldn't be too difficult, and they should come back year after year.

That's why I was surprised when my Climbing Colette bush made it through last winter (my first with roses in this cold area) easily, with almost no special care, but almost died after a minor one-night freeze in late April. At the time, I didn't have anything to cover it with, so I thought: Well, it's only going down into the upper twenties; this bush was fine all winter when it was much colder for weeks on end. I won't worry about it.

I was wrong. Within a week or two, every branch had blackened and withered. It's been slowly recovering all summer, and is now looking good again, but it hasn't managed a single blossom this year.

This could have been avoided, if I'd been a smarter rosarian instead of the cold-weather novice that I was. Freezes are coming soon. Join me after the break to learn what to do to protect your roses when the chilly days come!

Since I bought three more bushes this spring (Elle, Whisper, and Eden Climber/Pierre de Ronsard), it's important to me to know what they need. There are always a few weeks in my zone each year in which the temperature hangs around 0°F, but as I learned, many varieties of rose need a period of cold-weather dormancy to produce beautiful blossoms the next summer. At the same time, you don't want the bush to be improperly protected during a blizzard.

Know your rose's hardiness:

If you don't know your USDA Hardiness Zone, you need to. There are actually two types of hardiness: cold tolerance, addressed by the USDA, and heat tolerance. The heat tolerance zone map was created by the American Horticultural Society. For the moment, when we're discussing how well roses will make it through the winter, it's not as important as the USDA Hardiness map, but heat tolerance is important when you're selecting which varieties to plant in your garden. Varieties will be rated for hardiness in certain zones: some varieties like dry, hot areas, others thrive in Minnesota, if given proper care.

All rose varieties are not alike. You should know what rose varieties you have, and check out how winter hardy they actually are. Even roses that are appropriate for a given zone might have problems with the extreme ends of the temperature ranges.

Do some web searches and see what people have to say about that particular rose; Dave's Garden is a good place to start. You may find reviews from people in your area who have opinions different from those advertised by the growers and the test gardens, telling you which plants may be more fragile than others in your climate. This will give you a good idea of how much winter protection you actually need to do. For example, I'm in Zone 5b, and this sort of searching tells me that Whisper will need extra winter protection in my zone (actually, in spite of the fact that local stores were happy to sell them to me, not one of the bushes I own is a great one for Zone 5). GardenWeb is another great site to check.

(This type of web searching is also always entertaining to do when you've purchased a "disease resistant" plant that soon begins a lengthy losing battle with Black Spot; you'll often find that everyone else is having the same problem.)

Winter rose basics:

If your rose variety is rated as hardy in your zone, one of the best things you can do for it is to stop feeding it in mid-to-late August (if you haven't stopped yet, stop NOW, but continue to water). Before you winterize it, remove any leafy debris from around the plant. Allow the hips to continue growing: you can deadhead and prune in the spring. You don't want to do anything that will cause the rose to develop new canes this late in the year.

You'll decide for yourself when to do more to winterize your roses, but if you haven't done it by late November, consider it non-negotiable and get to it. In 2006, there were major snowstorms in the Northeast in mid-October, so people in colder zones may choose to get to work considerably earlier than someone who lives in, say, South Carolina.

Give the bush a good watering just before you plan to winterize. There doesn't seem to be a consensus about how much the roses should be watered during the course of the winter, but any time the ground is unfrozen and seems to be drying up, it wouldn't hurt.

There's a lot of good news. Your roses' root systems are underground, and it's not usually quite as cold under the soil as it is in the air. If you get a good amount of snow and few thaws, even better: the soil itself will be insulated from the coldest temperatures. Dormancy and even dieback (some loss of above-ground canes) can be good for many varieties of rose. On the other hand, Hybrid Tea roses are notoriously fussy.

Protect the source by hilling:

Many roses that you purchase and plant are not "own-root" (roses that have the actual, natural roots of that variety). Instead, many commercial roses are "grafted stock." That means they have the roots of a very hardy variety (maybe something like Gloire des Rosomanes, maybe a wild variety, but it depends on your zone), and the canes and flowers of the more specific advertised variety.

The graft is a knot at the base of the bush, which all the canes grow from, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. However, if the graft is exposed during the winter, it's possible for the specific variety to die back to the graft union... leaving you with a sad specimen of a completely different variety of rose from the one you thought you planted, assuming it survives until spring. For this reason and a few others, own-root roses are considered more desirable.

The way to tell if you have grafted stock, vs. own-root roses, is to take a look at the graft or bud union. You won't see a visible graft on own-root roses. (However, a lot of nurseries use "own-root" as a selling point, so the easiest way to tell is: were they advertised as own-root roses? If you propagated the rose yourself, they almost certainly are... but if you were up to propagating your own roses, you probably wouldn't be reading an article on basic winterizing.)

A great way to protect the graft union -- or even own-root roses -- is to heap some soil up at the bush's base, and layer mulch over the soil. A 12" tall mound is best, but every little bit helps (I've seen recommendations as small as 6 to 8" and as large as 18"). The graft or bud union should be 3-6" under the soil: that and everything below it is what needs to be preserved to keep the bush alive and healthy through its winter beauty sleep. The mound should be at least 12" wide. Add a thick layer of mulch over this mound of soil. If you do nothing else for your roses this winter, do this.

Don't dig soil up from around the rosebush to heap over the top; you can accidentally expose the roots. Invest in some soil. "Flower and Vegetable" soil is just fine for roses, though anything that you can buy that is specifically designed for roses is better. Garden soil is so inexpensive at home centers and nurseries (a few cubic feet for a few dollars) that this is the fastest and easiest way to get winter protection for your roses. Hay, straw, and compost are also appropriate. You'll remove this soil and mulch in the spring.

In the trenches with your roses:

Roses that live in small containers are a little more threatened; they get the cold from all sides. If you can't bring your roses indoors on the coldest nights, and don't have a patio for them to live on, dig a trench in your garden, tie the canes loosely with twine if necessary, lay the container-grown roses on their sides, and bury them for the winter. Make sure they get at least 12" of soil on top, then mulch.

Roses in large containers can be protected this way, but will probably be OK with the heap-of-soil-and-mulch method described above.

It may also be beneficial to bury long-cane roses in a trench. See Our Garden Gang's Winterizing Roses page for more details and diagrams. You must loosen the soil around the roots to lay ground-planted roses on their sides in a trench for the winter.

Wrapping to protect the canes:

Some people like to wrap their roses. It's better for some varieties than others; it can protect climbers from winds that can dry out the canes and even rip up the roots. If you choose not to wrap, or to use the trench method, you can still help to protect long canes by tying them together in a bundle with strips of cloth or synthetic twine. Some gardeners also suggest cutting the canes to about 24" in length (whether or not you wrap them); others worry that this could promote new growth at a time of year that is bad for it.

If you do choose to wrap, and you plan to leave the wrap up all winter, try not to use plastic wrap: it encourages the growth of mold and fungal diseases. The same is true of most "houses" and cones that some people put over roses. If you want to build a "rose house," try making a cylinder of chicken wire around the top of the plant, then packing the cylinder with hay or straw, rather than using a commercial rose house or cone made of Styrofoam or plastic.

Plain cloth sheets would be a better choice than plastic wrap: thrift stores are full of them, for a few dollars each. I got all the sheets I'll need for this winter from Goodwill last week for a total of four dollars! I'll spend another few dollars on garden soil and mulch, for a total of around $10 or so. Not much to spend, when you consider the cost of the roses themselves. If you have access to burlap, that's even better.

A winter that is consistently chilly, without being severe to the extreme or occasionally warm, is probably best for roses. They come out of dormancy in the warm temperatures, but new shoots are then killed by subsequent freezes. If you have a warm spell late in the winter, your roses will almost certainly need extra cold protection afterward. That's what happened to my poor Climbing Colette. Next spring, she'll be wrapped whenever there's a freeze.

Did it work?

I hope you now have enough information that your roses will have a happy, healthy winter nap, and you'll see a riot of beautiful flowers next June. But if you try all this and it doesn't work, try new roses in the spring: you won't know if it worked until then, anyway. If you don't see any green shoots by April or so, it's probably time to replant.

A recently developed variety of rose called Knock-Out is notoriously ever-blooming and winter hardy, but it doesn't have that "rosy" look to me. If you feel the same way, and your roses die every winter no matter what, you can do some research into varieties that would be good for your climate and are easy to maintain. Many books have suggestions for good "beginner" roses: try one!

Whatever you find, you can rarely go wrong with a polyantha rose called The Fairy. It's been around since the 1930s, and while care never hurts, it's famously tolerant of neglect, one of the varieties most commonly recommended to newbie rosarians.

Another beloved variety that dates back to around the same time and is reputedly nearly foolproof is New Dawn, with its ethereal, pale pink blossoms. It may be easier to find than The Fairy, and since it's a full-size climbing rose, may be more attractive to some people.

Many roses developed in even the relatively recent past are now extinct or lost, so consider Old Garden Rose varieties, like the Rugosas, Gallicas, and Bourbons: they have stood the test of time.

Finally, both Knock Out and The Fairy, as well as several Old Garden Roses like Duchesse de Brabant, have earned the Earthkind Rose designation: roses which need almost no care at all aside from being planted, and which can easily be grown organically. If you like the look of roses in your yard but are hopeless about maintaining them, try Earthkind.

(Aside from linked pages, one of my sources for the information in this article was Field Roebuck's Foolproof Guide to Growing Roses.)


Follow Us

  • No features currently available.

  • More Hot Topics The Daily Fix  •  DIY Warrior  •  Home Ec  •  Handmade
    DIY Disaster Doctor  •  In the Workshop  •  Product Picks

    Home Improvement Videos