By Diane C. Kennedy, for Let’s Talk Plants! June 2022.
Roses Without Chemicals
Roses are one of the most abused ornamental plants in American gardens. They are isolated in rows, and surrounded by rocks, ineffective weed barrier and the weeds that come through it. They are sprayed with insecticide and fungicide, doused with chemical fertilizers, and clipped to the bare bones in Autumn. Most of the time they are bare, leggy bushes. Even fussy hybrid tea roses would rather not be treated so harshly. There is another healthier, less intensive method of growing roses that will give you a prettier garden all year.
Permaculture practices are based on nature: what does the individual plant need to grow in the wild? Native roses grow along waterways under trees in soil that is fungal dominant. Bark mulch and leaves are the best possible fertilizer for roses. Surrounding their roots with no less than 2 or 3 inches of mulch (keeping the mulch away from the trunks of the roses so they won’t rot), you will be feeding the soil fungus that provides the proper nutrition for roses to thrive. Mulch is cooling, allows excellent water penetration and is attractive. Don’t buy the dyed bark which leaches chemicals into the soil. You can use free arborist mulch or free mushroom compost from Mountain Meadow Mushroom farm in Escondido. Sprinkling worm castings or fine compost around the plant before you mulch helps activate the soil.
Deadheading roses allow the plants to regrow more blooms because their effort to reproduce into seed has been thwarted. Snip to just above the next set of leaves and drop those blooms on the ground or compost them for rose food. Instead of lopping roses down to the bare bones every autumn, keep them in shape all year by pruning unwanted growth as it shoots up. In our warm climate roses often don’t go dormant, so taking all of their food-producing leaves away in the winter starves the plant. At the end of the season allow the plant to produce some seeds, or ‘hips.’ As long as you provide mulch or compost to the roots, it will be happy.
Monocultures attract insects, and a rose garden with just roses in it signals insects that the diner is open. Roses love company, so interplant other perennial and annual flowers, herbs and bulbs with the roses (please avoid alyssum, as it kills soil fungus and takes over gardens). Other plants will mask the roses’ knobby knees. When you have a variety of flowers all year the rasping/sucking insects will be confused and eaten by the predatory insects and birds that are attracted to the smaller flowers.
Water roses deeply several times a week in the hot months but don’t overwater.
When you use a systemic insecticide, it kills whatever comes to feed on that plant, even if it is a butterfly or beneficial insect such as ladybug or lacewing. When you use chemical fertilizer you kill soil life and create a plant that becomes dependent on chemicals. By using compost, mulch, and companion plants, and by not stressing roses through harsh pruning, they can live for decades blooming happily.