How To Winterize Roses

Winterizing roses is very important to ensure they survive the cold months and vigorously grow from year to year. Not all roses need winter protection in Zone 5. Hardy shrub roses such as those in the Knock Out family do not require any special winter maintenance procedures. The more tender roses like hybrid teas, grandifloras, and floribundas should be protected from winter damage.

Before we get to the steps involved, there are several things you can do to make sure your roses survive winter … long before the cold winds blow. First of all, choose the most winter hardy roses available to plant in your area. Next, make sure your roses are healthy and not under stress by taking good care of them all season long. Ensure they are planted properly, get adequate sunlight, and receive an inch of water per week. Robust plants have a much better chance of surviving winter than weak plants!

I’ve found the best way to prepare your cherished roses for the onset of winter is to make sure the plant stops growing and becomes fully dormant before the coldest weather sets in. You can fortify this in two ways:

1.) Stop fertilizing roughly six weeks before the first frost in your region. I personally never fertilize my roses after August 15th…I live in the suburban Chicago area.

2.) Let rose hips develop on your plants. Instead of cutting off the spent flowers from late fall, let the flowers go to seed and form hips. Most plants slow down their growth while their seeds mature.

Rose Hips Close Up

Rose Hips Close Up

You want to protect your rose not just from the cold, but from drying winds and from fluctuating temperatures, which can cause plants to freeze and thaw and then refreeze, and thaw again…a vicious cycle for plants.  I recommend you don’t do any fall trimming of roses if you live in a region where cold periods are interspersed with warm intervals. (We are seeing more and more of this recently here in Illinois) Trimming stimulates growth…if roses break dormancy, tender buds might begin to develop.

Flower Chick’s 3 Steps to Winterize Roses:

1. Make sure that your plants are well-watered. Fall rains usually do the job, but some seasons where the weather has been dry, water deeply to a depth of about 18 inches after the first frost, but before the ground freezes.

2. In mid fall, when the nights are hitting frost on a regular basis, remove fallen leaves and any debris from the base of your roses. Shovel clean soil carefully around your plants and mound up 10 – 12 inches with your hands.

Note: Don’t worry about all the canes above the soil mound. You’ll be trimming those back in the spring anyway. I usually buy a bag or two of garden soil specifically for the purpose of rose winterization.

Rose Winterized

3. When the ground is completely frozen, cover the mound with a thick layer of mulch, straw, leaves, evergreen boughs or compost.

This helps further ensure that the ground remains frozen and protects against fluctuating temps. If you prefer to use the ‘ol styrofoam rose cones, prune the bushes back so the cone will fit over the plant. Before you cover the bush, mound several inches of soil around the base of the canes then place the cone over the rose. To keep the cone in place, mound soil around the outer base.

When the ground begins to thaw in the spring, gently remove the soil from the base of the plants. A good indicator of when the time is right is when you see the yellow blooms of the forsythia. Spring has sprung!

You don’t want to unwrap too early – a sudden cold snap can be deadly. Remove the soil slowly and carefully so you don’t break off any new buds.

Winterizing  Climbing Roses:

Climbing roses need special protection since they are more upright and vulnerable to wind conditions and cold. If the rose is tied to a trellis and the canes are not very flexible, untie the canes and wrap them with insulating material (like you’d wrap pipes to keep them from freezing). Then retie them back to the trellis to protect them.

Also, cover the base of the plant with a mound of soil, as described above. If you are able to detach the canes from the trellis, lay the whole plant down (staking the canes in place if necessary), and cover it with soil and mulch. When the weather warms in spring, gently remove the covering and retie the rose to the trellis.

The three leading causes for rose death over winter are:

  • Selecting roses that are not hardy in your area. (If you live in Zone 5…don’t expect a Zone 7 or up rose to survive the winter)
  • Planting a budded rose with the bud union above the soil level in cold climates. (it should be buried in zone 5)  
  • Getting rocked loose by high winds.  Tall rosebushes are most vulnerable to this.  This usually happens to unsecured climbing roses.

My best advice to protect your prized roses for winter is to follow the above steps for gardeners in zone 5.  Stop deadheading spent blooms in September. Stop fertilizing your roses in mid-August.  Doing that will help your roses settle down for their long winter siesta … and prepare them so they’re raring to go come spring!