Those unfamiliar with bare root roses can be taken aback when first encountering them. Far from the lush rose bush envisioned, bare root roses arrive looking sort of… dead. Take heart. That clump of sticks with roots attached might seem vulnerable and uninspiring, but it’s actually only dormant, a natural state for roses during the winter months. Planting a rose in this state is one of the best ways to ensure that the bush gets off to a healthy happy start. Once planted, they very quickly become leafy bushes bursting with blooms.
“With roses, careful planting pays off over the long run,” says rose expert Michael Marriott, technical director of David Austin Roses in Albrighton, England. “Getting it right is so easy that it’s a shame to miss any steps.”
Bare root roses are all about root growth, says Marriott. “It’s critical to plant during the right planting window for your region, not too early, not too late, so conditions are optimal for rooting. “This is where bare root roses have an advantage over roses purchased in nursery pots,” Marriott adds. “When planted, bare root roses don’t have any existing leaves or flowers to support. They can focus on root development. This more leisurely pace is less stressful for the rose. The result is a fully-developed root system that benefits the rose over its lifetime.”
Following are bare root rose planting essentials from Michael Marriott:
Order in advance for delivery at planting time. Top mail-order firms like David Austin Roses make it their business to ship bare-root roses to recipients at just the right time for planting locally, no matter when you order. In any given area, the window for planting bare-root roses typically starts several weeks before last local frost and ends two weeks afterward.
Best rooting conditions. The right time to plant says Marriott is in early spring once the soil thaws and is still cool but not overly wet. This typically occurs when daytime temperatures average between 40° F and 60° F. Bare root roses planted after day temperatures regularly reach 70° F may struggle to survive unless babied with a bit of shade and regular careful watering.
Open box to inspect. Upon receipt, open the package to check the condition of new bare root roses. The plant and roots should arrive with an outer wrapping of plastic to retain moisture. The roots should be damp and not dried out.
Rewrap until planting. Once you’re sure the roots are damp, reseal the wrappings and store in a cool frost-free area until planting day. Ideally, plant within a week (two weeks at most). Keep the roses as cold as possible without letting them freeze. Don’t ever store in a heated room. Roses with roots that have dried out may not thrive when planted.
Don’t trim the roots. Do not be tempted to reduce the length of the roots prior to planting. If you spot a broken root, damaged in shipping, you should snip that part off. Leave all other roots as they are.
Soak ‘em high. When ready to plant, remove from wrappings and soak the roses in cool clean water for several hours or overnight. Be sure to submerge the roots totally. You can even submerge the entire plant (roots and canes).
Choose a sunny spot to plant. “Of course, roses love full sun,” says Marriott, “But most will thrive and bloom happily with four hours or more of good sun daily. Too many people worry that roses must have full sun all day or else. But that’s one of those old rules that keep getting recycled and is just not relevant to shrub roses these days. Certainly, for English Roses, four or more hours of good sun is plenty.” For those planting in very hot, dry areas like Phoenix, give roses some afternoon shade for best results, he adds.
Dig a good hole. Plant one rose per hole, deep enough so that the rose can be positioned properly relative to the soil surface. A good hole is typically 18-inches deep by 18-inches wide.
Prepare the soil well. “This step is must do,” says Marriott. Good soil preparation is absolutely crucial to success in growing robust healthy rose bushes. Roses love plenty of organic matter mixed into the soil to a depth of about 18-inches. Amend the soil for the planting hole with organic matter, either aged garden compost, well-rotted manure or bagged compost from the garden center.
Position correctly for local conditions. Most roses are sold as grafted plants with a featured rose variety grafted onto the roots of an exceptionally hardy rootstock, most often that of Rosa ‘Dr. Huey’. When planting, the fat joint where the stem meets the roots should be positioned at the soil surface (in warmer areas) or two to three inches below surface (in zones colder than USDA zone 6). For those who choose roses labeled “own root” (a good option for coldest areas), position the juncture of the main stem and roots at ground level.
Fill in the soil. Marriott insists that you can forget that old “mound of soil” planting routine. Instead, position the rose in the hole then backfill with the amended soil mix by gently pushing the soil firmly around and in between the roots. The key, he says, is to “refill the hole, working the soil between the roots with your hands to create root-to-soil contact and eliminate any air pockets.”
Spread mulch. Immediately after planting, top the garden bed with a three-inch layer of mulch. This will add nutrients over time, keep the soil cool and help retain soil moisture while roots get established and throughout the growing season. Ideally, use the same kind of compost you mixed into the planting hole as mulch. Refresh mulch each spring.
Feed each year. Repeat-flowering English Roses pump out blooms from early summer till frost, and that takes energy! Roses grow stronger and bloom more abundantly when properly fed. For ease and on-going feeding, apply a high-quality, time-release fertilizer annually. Choose a fertilizer suited both to roses and to your climate. Follow product directions, taking care to scatter the product evenly.
Water well. Roses are thirsty by nature and benefit from regular deep watering that reaches the roots. Water well when first planted. (But don’t overdo it and drown the plants! Roots cannot properly grow in super-saturated muck). Once growth commences, water regularly. Depending upon rainfall in your area, it is recommended to water roses at least once a week.
Protect over winter. When winter looms in colder areas, USDA zones 5 and below, add four or more inches of organic matter around the base of each rose to provide winter protection.
Consider the three’s company approach. One last tip from Marriott: If one rose bush is lovely, three is often more so, especially in larger roomier gardens. “We recommend planting English Roses of the same variety in groups of three, positioned in a triangle. In cooler areas, space each bush about 18- or 20-inches apart. In warmer areas, space them 24-inches apart.” Planting them like this allows the three bushes to knit together to create one very full, lush planting. “It’s definitely a look I love for English Roses,” he says.