Preparing Your Roses for Winter

One question that comes up for many gardeners this time of year, is how to prepare their roses for winter. The harsh winter weather found colder zones (zones 6 and below) can easily claim the lives of hybrid tea roses, floribunda and grandiflora roses, unless they are offered at least some level of winter protection. There are several ways to prepare your roses for winter and which method works best continues to cause heated debates among rosarians. In my opinion, it doesn't matter which method you choose, just as long as it carries your roses through until next spring.

How Freezing Temperatures Affect Roses

Understanding how roses can be damaged by winter weather can help you decide which level of protection your roses will need. In general, the colder winter, the more protection they need.

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Common Winter Injuries:

  1. Roots drying out. This usually happen as a result of the plants being heaved out of the ground due to the ground constantly thawing and freezing.
  2. Direct injuries sustained to the roots and canes as a result of extremely cold temperatures.
  3. Temperature swings (sunny days and cold nights) resulting in cracks or splits in the stems.
  4. Injuries and breakage sustained by animals, snow or ice.

Pre-Winter Prep

By mid-August you should stop fertilizing. Don't do anymore pruning now either, or you will only encourage new growth. Clean up and remove any fallen leaf debris to prevent insects and disease organisms from taking refuge over winter. Keep up with your watering schedule until the ground starts to freeze.

Methods of Protection

Once your garden sees a few hard frosts, it's time to add some winter protection. Don't add mulch or compost any sooner, or you'll run the risk of interfering with the plant's natural ability to ready itself for winter. If necessary, cut back the canes to 18-24 inches to make them easier to handle, and bundle (tie) them to prevent "rocking" damage from winter winds.

Mounding or "Hilling": Use fresh soil (or compost, bark, vermiculite, peat moss, saw dust, etc.) to create a mound of loosely layered mulch around the base of each bush. The mulch should be at least 10-12 inches deep. You don't have to cover the entire plant, but make sure the base of the bush is well insulated against the cold.

Gardeners in the coldest zones (6 and below) will want to take this a step further and cover the entire plant with mulch. You can do this quite easily by adding a collar around the bush made from chicken wire, hardware cloth or a tomato cage. Wrap the collar with cardboard, bubble wrap or tarp, fill it up with fresh straw and cover the top to prevent snow or rain from collecting inside. Keep the straw loose and the mulch porous to encourage air circulation and avoid smothering the roots and crown. This method usually provides enough protection for roses grown in zones 7 and 8.

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Rose Cones: Another method is to add 10 to 12 inches of loose mulch around the base of the rose bush and cover it using a commercially available rose cone. These are usually made from Styrofoam and will need to be secured by some type of weight (rock or brick) to keep them from blowing away. If you're covering extremely tender roses, cut of the top of the cone and add straw for extra protection. It's also best to poke a few small holes in the sides of the cone to allow for some airflow.

Tipping: Here in Minnesota, many rosarians use a method we call the Minnesota Tip. The first step is to dig a trench. Start the digging away from the bush and work your way towards it. The trench needs to be long enough and wide enough to accommodate the entire rose bush.

Now using a spading fork, carefully pull the soil away from the area between the bud union and the main branching of the root system. You want to loosen the soil around the roots until you can bend or "tip" the bush completely into the trench. Hold the bush down into the trench and cover it with 2 or 3 inches of soil. On top of this, add 18 inches of loose leaves or straw. Around April 1st, gradually uncover the roses as the weather continues to warm up. By mid April, the roses can be lifted back into their upright positions and the canes syringed with water to prevent them from drying out.

Protecting Climbers: To protect climbing roses, remove them from their supports, bundle the canes, lay them on the ground and cover them with 6 to 10 inches of soil and mulch. Try to avoid cracking or splitting the stems when bending them.

Winter Rose Care for Zones 9 through 11

Roses grown in these zones don't need protection from cold temperatures, but they are subject to fungal diseases from wet winter weather. Give your bushes a light feeding now and plan on pruning them after they bloom next month.

Choose Roses Hardy to Your Zone

The best way to avoid winter injuries is to start with a healthy rose bush. Vigorous plants that are free from insects and disease stand the best chance of surviving winter weather. Most importantly, choose a variety that is hardy to your zone. This isn't always as easy as it sounds, because most modern roses are usually hybrids and they are not always tested thoroughly for hardiness. It's a great idea to solicit advice from local gardeners who have successfully grown locally purchased roses under "real-life" local growing conditions. Ask them how they prepare their roses for winter and who sells the best quality roses in your area.

About The Author: Ellen Brown is our Green Living and Gardening Expert. Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services.

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