Growing Roses

An under-considered activity for enhancing mental health.

Posted Jan 18, 2020

 Courtesy of the Twomey family
Source: Courtesy of the Twomey family

Perhaps you might be attracted to growing roses because of the romantic image, the beautiful flower form or fragrance, or because your grandparent grew them.

The attraction to roses is understandable. In a world that's ever more high-tech, impersonal, and in which some people are ready to pounce if you say the "wrong" word, the peace of mind that can derive from a simple pleasure like growing what is arguably our most beautiful flower can be appealing. That may be especially true now, as we're at the year's best time to order roses and, in warm-winter areas, to plant them.1

But likely, you’re much less attracted to the idea of fancy pruning, frequent feeding, let alone spraying with an arsenal that would have scared Saddam Hussein.

I'm not attracted to that either. I’ve tried rosarians' fastidious methods, and after having grown roses, over 200 in total, for 40 years now, I’ve concluded . . . Nah.

Yet I still grow beautiful roses for myself and to share: maximum pleasure with minimal effort. Here's how.

Which roses?

A rose is not a rose is not a rose. Here are four that I think are tops. I used these criteria to select from the thousands available:

  • Classic rose flower form, what's called hybrid-tea form. There’s no need to get a rose if you don’t care about form; you can just get a marigold.
  • Lots of flowers. Stingy varieties need not apply.
  • Vigorous. That means fast-growing to its ultimate size.
  • No spraying needed. Sure, if you’re a fussbudget, wear a hazmat suit or at least gloves, and pollute the air with fungicides and pesticides so your plant will have nary a chewed leaf or petal or fungus spore. But remember, this article is the lazy person’s, not the perfectionist’s, guide to growing roses. 
 pxfuel, public domain
Black Magic
Source: pxfuel, public domain

Black Magic: Long-lasting, velvety, deep red of perfect form.

 David Stang, CC 4.0, Wikimedia
Source: David Stang, CC 4.0, Wikimedia

Gemini: Perfect formed two-tone pink. It opens more quickly than Black Magic does, so it'll do better in half-day than in the full-day sun. 

pxhere, Public Domain
Julia Child
Source: pxhere, Public Domain

Julia Child: Floriferous yellow, fragrant, but its form isn't as lovely as the previous two. This is another rose that'll do a little better in half- than in the full-day sun. 

 Ayashiyama, CC 3.0, Wikimedia
Pope John II
Source: Ayashiyama, CC 3.0, Wikimedia

Pope John Paul II: Pure white of fine form, a little tall for my taste (five feet), but healthy and fragrant.


Plant after the last frost, but don't worry if your baby gets a little late snow, s/he'll likely be fine.

1. When you get your plant, cut out any parts that look skinnier than the rest. That isn’t mission-critical; your patient will live. But if that pruning would make you nervous, ask someone at the nursery to do it.

2. Unless you’ve bought the rose in a large pot rather than bare-root in a package or by mail-order, let the plant sit in a few-gallon bucket of water for at least the time it takes to dig your hole, but as long as two weeks if that’s more convenient.

3. Find a spot for your rose that gets at least a half-day of sun.

4. Dig a cubic-foot hole and then use your shovel to loosen a few inches of the hole’s bottom and sides—That makes the hole more root-friendly without your having to dig out more. Keep the dug-up soil alongside the hole and dump two shovels of compost on that.

5. Hand-mix the soil mixture as you’re pushing two-thirds of it back into the hole.

6. Center your plant in the hole, pushing the outer. long roots downward, covering them with soil to keep them pointing downward. Now fill the rest of the hole.

7. Over the top of the plant, with the soil now at ground level, put a sleeve made of a fully opened-up, half-gallon milk container or a one- or two-gallon plastic pot with the bottom cut out with pruning shears. Fill that three-fourths of the way to the top with your soil mixture. Now water the whole thing slowly through the top of the sleeve. The sleeve keeps the rose from drying out during the first month until roots are growing. 

8. The rose needs to stay moist, so if it hasn't rained for a week or more, water it gently but deeply.

9. A month later, gently push back the soil in the sleeve to see if leaves have started to bud. If so, gently remove the sleeve and use your hose to wash away the sleeve’s soil.


1. Around St. Patrick’s Day (mid-March) or within a few weeks, fertilize with whatever granular (not liquid) fertilizer you have handy: general-purpose, even lawn fertilizer is good enough, as long as the first of the three numbers on the bag (nitrogen) is at least as high as the other two numbers (phosphorus and potassium.) Just sprinkle a half a trowel-full of fertilizer in a one-to-two-inch-wide circle that’s one foot from the plant’s center. Water it slowly until you sense that the fertilized water has descended a foot. Fertilize again around Memorial Day, July 4, and in mild-winter climates, Labor Day.

2. If you have an automatic watering system, depending on the rains, mid-March is usually a good time to turn it on. Use a few-gallon-per-hour dripper or shrubbler head. Twice or three times a week for 10-15 minutes is about right. If it’s hot, supplement with one watering in between. 

3. Cut roses to bring into the house, give to friends, or just to remove the dead blooms. Use pruning shears rather than scissors. To keep your plant compact, cut at the cane’s lowest bud eye (the hint of new growth) just above a leaf. If that gives you too long a stem for your decorative purpose, of course, re-cut the stem to the size you want. Early next spring (or January in frost-free climes), prune your rose(s) back by one-third to two-thirds, again cutting just above each cane's lowest bud eye.


Do take the time to smell, or at least look at, the roses, including the miracle of growth. One of roses’ pluses is that the plant goes from bare canes to lush, flowering plant in just three months. And rose plants last for decades. The classically formed rose may be among nature's—well, hybridizers'—greatest creations.

The takeaway

Roses are but one of many simple, financially and side-effect-free ways to maintain your emotional health. Of course, other plants may have emotional value for you. I think, for example, of the daisies and Queen Anne's Lace I picked as a child, or the marigolds and zinnias I grew from seed.

Then there are the creative arts: Many people feel good emotionally when listening to or playing music, reading or writing, doing needlework, etc. As we sit in winter's cold, it's a particularly good time to begin or renew an interest in such restoratives. Is there one that calls out to you?

1 Quality and selection are excellent in specialty rose catalogs such as Regan or Edmunds', and they'll ship to you at the right time for planting in your climate. In locales that get little or no frost, for example, much of California, January and February are the best times to both plant and to buy because that's the time when local nurseries have the best selection at the year's lowest prices.

I read this aloud on YouTube