Roses in January? Outside?

Roses in bloom in January? (taken 1/21/2010, Philadelphia)

Rose petals should not still be clinging to the plant now, should they? It’s January for goodness sake. There’s nothing out there that remotely resembles a flower, and yet, these rose petals hang on.  And it’s not just one either – it’s all the flowers on the whole darn plant.

And buds too!

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find these in my neighbor’s yard. All my roses are dried up, thorny stick bushes. Without color. What did this fellow gardener do right (or wrong) when preparing this rose for the winter? Surely some trick exists to replicate these freeze dried roses in real life.

So I did a bit of cursory research on how to prepare roses for winter including a quick primer on deadheading. Turns out that everything I was ever taught about roses was wrong.

I grew up in the shade. My mom has no roses in her garden. I probably wouldn’t have listened to her advice if she did have roses (I’m kind of a pain that way). My first introduction to roses came when I got married. We were young and poor and homeless, and a lovely couple took us in as caretakers for their turn-of-the-century mansion in St. Louis. I do not exaggerate when I say mansion:

May I present the "John A. Holmes Mansion". Newlywed suite: 3rd floor.

12,000 square feet of house takes a long time to vacuum, I assure you. Part of our job was to help take care of the yard, which included a nice little rose garden. Mrs. G loved those roses and taught me everything she knew. Ever year since then, I’ve applied these lessons to the roses that have grown in my own garden around my exponentially smaller house.  Only water them in the morning. Take care not to wet the leaves. Water them every day. Deadhead them by pruning at an angle above the first healthy five-leaflet leaf. Prune the canes down to about a foot tall and mulch them for winter.

Okay, except it turns out you’re not supposed to cut them down for the winter.  And you’re not supposed to dead head them after September.  (And some say you should deadhead them right below the bloom, not at the five-leaflet leaf, but that really has nothing to do with this story. See Frances Ballentine’s intriguing article on this subject for more detail.)

According to the University of Illinois extension (seems like a reliable source, right?), the right thing to do is coax them into complete dormancy. This means no fertilizing after August 15. No deadheading after September – which should cause the rose to form hips. Then there’s a whole process of mounding and mulching and covering that seems like a lot of work to me. But they are very clear: “Pruning, however, at this point should be kept to a minimum. The majority of the pruning will be done in the spring to remove dead and diseased canes.”

So my neighbor did it right. He or she did not prune the canes prior to winter. But, I think my neighbor might also have done it wrong. Instead of letting the hips form, my guess is that this avid rosarian kept deadheading, so the plant kept producing more flowers. And in some twisted confluence of rose production and winter’s onset, the first hard freeze came when this rose was in full bloom. Hah! And the result was freeze dried roses for his garden all winter long.

Should we try to duplicate these very cool results despite the risky methods hypothesized above? I suppose only time will tell if this rose survived it’s beautiful winter.

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10 responses to “Roses in January? Outside?

  1. Hi, Kelly, I kind of suspect those roses in your neighbor’s yard are the new variety “Knockout”. They require no pruning, or attention at any time. I think you are treating yours just fine! Lovely post!

  2. I agree with the first commenter. I have knockout roses and they look exactly like your neighbors! They haven’t even lost their leaves, and although they were frosted and many buds were freeze dried, now they are starting to produce again! About that mansion…wow! What a lot of work and very beautiful!

    • Hi Deborah – thanks for the note. I’m definitely putting those in my garden next year if this is what they look like in the winter! Roses producing in January – how wonderful. The mansion was fun, no doubt. We lived there for a year and then were the most downwardly mobile couple in the country. I was so happy cleaning my tiny little apartment after that though!

  3. aloha kelly,

    i enjoyed your post, you know i only have one rose bush here in hawaii and i dead head it all the time, but it is fussy since we get alot of humidity here so the leaves are icky and mildewy and black spots, and, and, and….its just not worth it here in hawaii so i just keep it to one rose bush 😦


  4. Hi Kelly, I agree with the others. This is most likely a shrub type rose, own root, as opposed to the hybrid tea grafted types that require all that maintenance. Look for the old fashioned Antique roses grown on their own roots from places like Antique Rose Emporium. That site will give you lots of information on roses that would be hardy for you with little care. The knockouts and other shrub types are not pruned unless for shaping. Good luck! 🙂

  5. Knockout roses are fantastic. I first saw them in Texas while visiting my daughter, but they are hardy and beautiful here in Massachusetts. I hope you’ll visit my Virtual Rose Walk.

  6. Pingback: Organic Roses « life out of doors

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