Winterizing Roses

The better care your roses receive throughout the growing season, the better chance they stand to get through winter unscathed …

If the plant suffers from lack of water or nutrients or grappled with a disease during the summer or fall, it will be in a weakened state when old man winter arrives. Remove all fallen leaves and debris from within and around the plant to prepare it for the cold season …

Wintering Roses

The best way to prepare your prized roses is to make sure the plant stops growing and becomes fully dormant before the onset of the coldest weather. I’ve found you can encourage this in two ways:

– Stop fertilizing six weeks before the first frost. I never fertilize my roses after August 1st ( I’m in Zone 5 in the Chicago area ).

– Let rose hips develop. Instead of cutting off or deadheading the spent flowers from late fall bloom, let the flowers go to seed. Most plants slow down their growth while their seeds mature.

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 refreeze, and thaw…a vicious cycle for plants.  

I recommend you don’t do any fall trimming if you live in a region where cold periods are interspersed with warm intervals.  (We are seeing more and more of this in my area in recent years)  Trimming stimulates growth…if roses break dormancy, tender buds might begin to develop.

Winterized Rose – Courtesy of the University of Illinois Extension

4 Easy 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 early to mid fall, when the nights are getting regularly frosty, mound several spadefuls of soil over the base of the plant, extending the soil up at least a foot above the bud union. (Before I do this I remove all fallen leaves and debris from within and around the plant)

Don’t worry about the canes above the mound, you’ll be cutting those back in the spring anyway. Get the soil from somewhere else, not around your roses. Sometimes I go buy a bag at the local garden center to do the job if I don’t have enough elsewhere in the yard.

3. When the ground is thoroughly frozen, cover the mound with a thick layer of mulch, such as straw, leaves or compost.

This helps ensure the ground remains frozen. If any leaves remain on the plant, you can remove them.

Leaves can harbor disease and dry out the plant. Wire mesh or tied newspaper can keep the protective material in place. You can buy styrofoam or plastic cones, but I’ve never been a big fan of those.

4. When the ground begins to thaw in the spring, gently start removing the soil from the base of the plant.

I usually wait until I see the yellow blooms of the forsythia before I unwrap my roses. You don’t want to start too early – a sudden cold snap can be brutal. Remove the soil slowly and carefully so you don’t break off new buds.

Winterizing  Climbing Roses and Tree Roses:

These types of roses need special protection since they are more upright and thus more exposed to wind 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.

Climbing Rose Protection

Dig up tree roses (or move the potted ones) and store them for winter in a cool garage or basement. Or dig up only one side of the tree roses’ roots so that it can lie on its side. Then secure with stakes and cover the whole thing with soil and mulch.  See diagram on the left.

The harsher your winters, the more you’ll need to worry about winter protection for your roses.  Unfortunately, some roses are doomed no matter what protection method you choose.

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 8+ rose to survive the winter)

– Planting a budded rose with the bud union above the soil level.  (See the Rose Planting Section for Details)

– Getting rocked loose by high winds … tall rosebushes are most vulnerable to this.  

I’ve never experienced this, but I know gardeners who have…especially if they haven’t secured their climbing roses.

My best advice to protect your precious plants is to follow the above steps.  Most importantly, stop deadheading spent blooms in September. Stop fertilizing your roses in August.  

Following these key steps will help your roses settle down for a long winter’s nap!

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