“Stop and smell the roses.”
“Everything’s coming up roses.”
“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Roses permeate our culture — and our gardens. Their scent compels us to pause in the midst of a busy day and breathe in their perfume.
They come in many colors that even have assigned meanings: red for romance, pink for appreciation, yellow for friendship and white for purity or innocence.
But for some, the thought of planting roses is intimidating. The American Rose Society would like to change that way of thinking.
“One of our big things we like to tell people is that growing roses is easy if you choose the right rose for the right place,” said Beth Smiley in a telephone interview from Shreveport, La., home to the society’s headquarters.
That includes picking the right rose for the right climate, she said.
“Roses that grow well here in Louisiana are not going to grow well in Montana,” said Smiley, publications director for the national nonprofit. “You can probably grow anything in California.”
As proof of the hardiness of roses, Smiley points to their prehistoric origins. Archaeologists discovered the fossils of roses with dinosaur fossils in Colorado, she said.
“They go back to ancient times, traced back to China,” Smiley said. “And there are stories of roses being used for health benefits back in Medieval times.”
Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, Josephine, is credited with their continued existence. She had roses shipped from China to France, which became even more crucial after roses all but disappeared from China.
“Josephine really helped to spread roses,” Smiley said. “As much as you or I may not like her husband, we like her a lot because she collected roses.”
To help boost their popularity in modern times, the ARS offers lots of information about choosing and caring for roses on its website. People also are invited to call the society and plug in their ZIP codes for a free consultation.
“And we’ll give you somebody to talk to you who lives near to you,” Smiley said. “They can help you with your microclimate.”
The United States Department of Agriculture has devised a plant hardiness zone map, which tells gardeners which plants thrive in different locations. Plants sold in nurseries and stores often are tagged with the zones where they grow best.
The Billings area falls into zones 3 and 4, said Bobbie Marble, part-owner of Billings Nursery and Landscaping with her husband, Richard.
“There are some areas, underneath the Rims, around Pioneer Park and the hospital areas where they can actually grow zone 5 plants,” Marble said.
Something else to keep in mind is the hardiness of the roses, she said. While hybrid tea roses — known for large, well-formed blooms on long stems — tend to be the most popular, they are also more fragile than shrub roses and require more care.
“Shrub roses stay low to the ground, 2 to 3 feet and tend to spread,” Marble said. “They are on their own root stalk so they are definitely hardier.”
Roses zoned 6 or 7 also have a place in the Billings landscape, said Mick Gainan, co-owner of Gainan’s Flowers and Garden Center and manager of the Heights Garden Center.
“Those are usually the ones that will perform like crazy in a container all summer long, but they’re not winter hardy,” Gainan said. “So you can buy them, treat them as an annual and discard them at the end of the season.”
On the other hand, roses zoned for this area are perennials that, with the right care, will last for years and years.
Another thing to know is not all roses bloom all summer long, said Amy Grandpre, urban horticulture assistant for the Yellowstone County Extension Service.
“A lot of the heirloom varieties, like rugosas, will have a window of blooming — maybe four weeks — and then they’re done,” Grandpre said. “But they smell wonderful and they are gorgeous.”
Caring for roses involves different steps, but feeding them is a crucial part of that, Gainan said.
“It’s our opinion that if the plants are good and healthy, there will be minimal insect issues,” he said.
Typically, people with large rose gardens will lose 10 to 15 percent of their roses a year, Gainan said, through no fault of their own.
“Sometimes plants just freeze back or sometimes they have run their course and sometimes they just need replacing,” he said.
Probably half of the customers Gainan meets ask about buying roses and choosing the right ones for their yards. He starts by asking them questions.
“Is your summer busy? Do you want a rose you can actually cut, or do you want to see bushes with lots of color on them?” Gainan said. “Roses can be very carefree, but they do like a visit at least once or twice a week, just a little chat to find out how they’re doing.”
Growing and maintaining roses take a number of steps. Gainan, Grandpre and Marble all shared suggestions on how to do that, and their thoughts are combined below:
Picking the site. Roses like sunlight, so choose a spot in the garden that gets at least four to six hours of sun each day. Early morning sun protects better against mildew, since it will evaporate the moisture. Spacing depends, in part, on the type of rose you choose. But as a rule of thumb, when it comes to the ease of caring for them, plant the bushes 3 to 5 feet apart.
Preparing the soil. For this crucial step, dig a hole 18 to 24 inches wide and 12 to 18 inches deep. Then make a blend of three parts soil to one part (or even 50-50) compost or peat moss. Fashion a cone of dirt at the bottom of the hole, to give the roots a chance to spread out evenly on all sides. Gypsum is a good additive to help break down clay-like soil, which is common in parts of Billings.
Planting the roses. If you buy roses from a greenhouse, give the plant a chance to acclimate to the outdoors. Carefully remove the plant from the container when you’re ready to plant it, and don’t break up the root ball. If you’re planting a hybrid rose, make sure the bud-union (the bump or knob where the plant has been grafted to the rootstock) is placed two inches below the ground level. Place half the soil in the hole, fill it with water, let it drain, and then add the rest of the dirt and water it again. Use landscape fabric and mulch, such as fine bark or compost or Soil Pep, around the base of the plants, but not up against the trunk, to hold in moisture and prevent weeds.
Feeding and watering roses. Water the base of the plant (rather than using a sprinkler) early in the morning, the equivalent of about one inch of water every seven to 10 days during the growing season. A sharpened pencil, wood dowel or moisture meter can help make sure the soil is moist (but not wet) to a depth of five to 10 inches. There are various kinds of fertilizers available, and how often you use them depends on the product you choose. Typically, feeding should be done an average of twice, once between the middle and end of May and a second time around the middle of July.
Insects and diseases. Aphids and spider mites, black spot and powdery mildew are problems that can beset roses, especially plants that are stressed or inadequately watered. When needed, spray roses early in the morning after they’ve been hydrated. Check with local nurseries to determine the best product to use for a specific problem.
Wintering and pruning. After the first killing frost, take a half-bag of compost and drop it right over the center of the plant to make a funnel of soil. You can use a rose collar to hold in the soil, if you wish. The compost helps keep the soil temperature constant. Remove the mound in the spring after the danger of frost has passed.
Prune roses in early spring, before growth starts, generally in mid-May to the end of May.