March in the Rose Garden
By Bill Kozemchak, CR

March is a month when I really get the inch to start working in the garden. The temperatures are going up and the days are getting longer. It’s nice to get out in the sun and do some cleaning up in the garden. Removing leaves and trash that have blown in during the winter, trimming any broken canes, and retying any climbing canes that have broken loose are the first things I will do.

Doing a pH test or sending out a soil sample would be a good idea now. This will let you know what is needed to correct your soil. Usually in this area the soil is acid and most fertilizers will push the pH in this direction. Applying lime will take care of this. It is good to know the pH, to know how much lime to apply. It is not a quick process, so doing this now will give the soil time to adjust. Roses usually like a pH near 6.5. I have had my pH as low as 4.0 in areas of the garden and the roses seemed to struggle before I corrected it.

The beginning of the month would also be a good time to do a dormant spray if it is still cool. I use a combination of lime-sulfur and horticultural or dormant oil spray. The lime-sulfur will kill any fungal spores and the oil will smother insect eggs. Another benefit of doing this is it seems to stop the rabbits from chewing on the canes at the base. In past years I have suffered quite a bit of damage from this. They chew around the cane and eventually the cane will die. One year they chewed half of a circular bed. After spraying I didn’t see any further damage, but it took a year or more for the bed to recover and become uniform in size again. Other people will use their regular fungicide and insect sprays and spray the plants completely after pruning.

In our area the rule of thumb is to prune when the forsythia bloom. Many new growers are nervous when it comes to pruning. Unless you prune your roses to the ground in the fall, you shouldn’t have a problem. The canes will hold nutrients for spring growth, so pruning in the fall should be limited to dead, damaged, or diseased canes. When you see the forsythia blooming in your area, the bushes can be pruned low or very high. Low pruning (8-12 inches) will produce less, but larger flowers. This is how many exhibitors prune. Higher pruning or just shaping the bush will produce smaller, but more numerous blooms. It is a matter of preference as to what you want from your garden. You could also prune somewhere in between the two extremes. No matter which way you choose, the bushes will still grow.

Cut the canes back to healthy tissue. The center or pith should be a creamy white and healthy, not brown. Some varieties may not be very white, but they also shouldn’t be too brown. Last year I left some questionable canes higher than I should. Once the heat came in late June the new canes that had just bloomed ended up dying, wasting the energy the bush had put out to grow them. Had I pruned lower those canes would still have been on the bush. If you find canes that are dead or diseased, you may have to remove them completely. Canes that are damaged or split should be removed below the damaged portion. It is also good to open the center of the bush to allow air to circulate, helping with disease and fungus problems. Small, twiggy, and unproductive growth should also be removed.

I have also heard from other rosarians, “the older I get, the higher I prune”, as it gets harder get down near the ground. The Fiskars pruning stick is very useful for people who have a hard time bending or kneeing down. It is very light and has a swivel head so it can be used to reach high or low, eliminating the need to bend down or step up on a stool or ladder.

Clean sharp pruning shears, loppers, and pruning saw are important so you don’t damage the canes as you prune. Also use the proper tool for size cane you are cutting. Some people will try to muscle the cane with the wrong tool and end up with a very dull or broken tool. If the cane is too large for pruners, get your loppers, if the loppers aren’t working get the pruning saw. It is easier and cheaper than replacing the broken tool. Trust me, I know firsthand.

After pruning I will apply my first fertilizer. Make sure the ground is moist and water in after the application to avoid burning the roots. I use Rosetone an organic fertilizer along with a granular fertilizer usually 19-19-19. I usually apply about a cup of each to the large bushes and half of that to the miniatures. The granular will be available sooner to the plants as the organic fertilizers need the soil to warm before they break down and are useable. A hand full of Epsom salts is also applied. The magnesium sulfate is said to promote basal beaks which are new canes emerging from the bud union.

After fertilizing I apply a fresh layer of mulch. Mulching now will prevent breaking off new soft growth later on. It is also easier than working around bushes that have already leafed out. A good layer of mulch will retain moisture in the soil once the weather warms up. It will also insulate the roots and bud union during the winter if you keep the bud union at ground level or slightly below.
March is a good time to get any last minute orders in for new roses. It is better to order early for best selection, but if you didn’t get your order in yet, there may still be time. Bagged and boxed roses will be coming to stores soon. If you buy early they will be fine. I have many of these in my garden. The trick is to get them before they sit in the stores for a month or more and dry out. The roots are usually quite a bit shorter than mail order or potted roses. I will usually pot them for a while and let some nice roots develop before putting them in the ground later in the year. The other problem with the very cheap bagged roses is they are often misnamed or renamed with a non registered name, making it difficult if you would like to exhibit them.

Late March or early April is a good time to transplant roses in your garden. If a rose is too small or large for the spot you’ve given it, or it doesn’t bloom enough for a prime spot you may want to find a different one. Evaluate your roses and see which ones aren’t performing well. A change to a new location in your garden may help or maybe consider replacing ones don’t do well.
March is a good time to make a garden map. It doesn’t have to be fancy; it will be a record of what varieties are planted and where they are at. Don’t forget to update your map if you already have one while moving or planting new roses. Tags and markers can fade or get lost over the winter. I have also heard grandchildren sometimes like to move or remove them.

If you were planning any new beds this year, now would be a good time to start on them. Digging and amending is easier when its cooler and the soil will have time to settle and adjust before planting. Remember roses love organics, and it is much easier to incorporate them when building the bed then later on. Sand and gypsum are very useful if you have clay soil. Clay or topsoil should be added if your soil is very sandy. Either type benefits from plenty of organics.

Is your Tetanus shot up to date? It is a good idea to have a tetanus booster at least every ten years, although for those of us who are always working in the soil, five years is probably better. Tetanus is a soil born bacteria that can cause serious problems, and nobody needs those! There is not a lot going on in the garden now, so call the doctor and make your appointment.

After this cold winter I’m going to enjoy getting outside this month. Spring is just around the corner!