Pt. Defiance photo of the orange roses in bloom

NW Seasonal Rose Care

As you return to thinking about your rose garden, have you noticed the changes just looking at it from the safety of the porch or window? Our evenings are changing: the light is at sharper angles at sunrise and sunset. And from a trivia standpoint, it might be useful to remember that the spring equinox marks the midpoint between the shortest and longest days of the year.

With the new year comes longer days and warmer temperatures, plus the ground is starting to warm and become supportive of rose bush roots. And for us humans, the air is clean, crisp and becoming comfortable for working outdoors.

Here is a summary of seasonal projects that we seem to go back to like a favorite chair – and with good results that walk in the rose show door year after year.

Spring Prep


We want to accomplish 2 things at least in this last week of February (and into the first week of March, if needed.  

We want to get rid of any dead, diseased, or damaged canes and we want to open up the center of the bush for air movement.  In addition, this is the time to shape the plants to keep them inside the area in which we want them to grow.  Since rose canes are soft in the center, it’s very important to use sharp pruners, so you don’t crush them, which starts disease.  

Usually cuts should be made about 3/8 inches above a ‘leaf scar’ that faces outward.  Make sure your cut has been made where the cane has healthy wood.  If the pith in the center of the cane is at all brown, keep cutting until you find pith that looks like the inside of a good apple.


Just after pruning and before the bushes have sprouted, remove the winter mulch from the bud-union, use the dormant spray, and weed.  Handling these little chores now prevents breaking off those new shoots that will come soon.


Alfalfa, in pellets or meal, contains a valuable growth hormone and makes an excellent feeding supplement. Use about 2 cups per plant worked lightly into the soil in mid-March.

Summer Support


This is by far the most important part of rose growing success.  If your soil drains well, you won’t have to worry about over-watering.


Use a commercial fertilizer with a balance of the 3 main ingredients and a bit of the trace elements with minerals.  Always water well before & after an application of granular fertilizer.

Apply about 3/4 cups of the granular per full-sized bush monthly from April to August.  Avoid fertilizers with high nitrogen after mid-September to slow the leaf & cane growth heading into the Fall.


Pruning occurs in the summer, as you ‘deadhead’ spent blooms.  Make your cut just above a 5-leaflet leaf that is on the outside of the cane.  Go down far enough on the stem so that the cane will be strong enough to support vigorous new growth.

Fall Clean-up


Just keep an eye on the weather. If we get another dry spell add some water to your bushes – it’s not likely, since we’re in the NW, but be ready.


Double check that the weeding is finished as part of leaving the beds alone for the winter.  If you have gotten this chore done, good for you.  If not, get this one done “soon.”


NOT NEEDED at this time of year.  Boosting the plant is counterproductive now.


NOW before the winter rains come, and before you put down your layer of protective mulch.


A good mulching result begins with a good organic mix.  Some folks use the regular Tagro for this purpose.  If you do this, be sure that the Tagro you get isn’t too ‘slimy.’  Other possibilities include Cedar Grove Compost, Prep, and the old favorites cow or horse manure.  You may be able to find an old favorite, mushroom compost too, but be sure it has the age and texture quality you want for your particular soil.


Last project of the year.  In December, you can use a dormant  type spray to kill off disease that may linger through the winter during dormancy.


If you are planting a new rose where an old one was set, remove the old soil down to 16 inches & replenish with fresh, energetic soil – including the compost and nutrients you would always use in an established rose bed.  Roses are heavy feeders, so including a fresh supply of organics, lime, & super phosphate will give them a great start when you set them in their new home.


Reward your successful year by picking some new roses to purchase in February of next year. Raft Island Roses and Portland Nursery are good resources for this planning.

Winter Protection

When we talk about winter protection, we have 2 main things in mind: protecting our bushes from the cold & protecting them from physical damage.


The usual advice is that unless you live in a cold spot or at a higher elevation, you need only protect your most tender varieties.  Teas, some yellows, and Queen Charlotte may well need help in any garden.  But, as we’ve seen over the last 3 years, we’ll all be mulching our gardens.  

Create a mound over the bud-union about 6 inches deep using whatever mulch you’ve put on the rose beds already.  The key thing is that the mulch is not something that gets water-logged so we reduce the environment conducive to canker formation.


One of our standard suggestions is to cut back individual bushes (NOT CLIMBERS) by about one-third.  At the same time, you can get rid of dead and damaged canes.  This will eliminate a good deal of the foliage that remains in the bush.  This helps immediately to keep them from being ‘rocked’ loose in the ground by our strong fall and winter wind.  

There is still controversy about whether to remove all leaves at this time, but most of us remove all the leaves to reduce fungal hosting till the weather gets below 35 degrees.

Another step is to loosely tie each bush together with soft twine to keep any cane that gets burdened with snow from snapping off at the bud union. For the same purpose we can make sure that our climbers are well-tied to their support structures.  Again, use soft twine to make sure that the tie doesn’t damage the outer bark of the cane.  

You also may be surprised to find some new long canes.  Train them now while they’re still supple.

Now, find those sunny days among the nasty ones to get out and handle these chores, and your roses will reward you all next summer with more and larger blooms.

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