Make Everything Come Up Roses

Robert Smaus is the gardening editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

The new year heralds many beginnings, but for the gardener the first weekend of the year is also the first weekend of the rose-planting season. It’s the time when you have the best selection to choose from--the greatest variety--and, in most cases, the plants are not as expensive as at other times of the year; because they are sold bare-root, no potting soil or nursery container adds to the cost.

It used to be that bare-root roses were kept in bins filled with damp sawdust, to prevent the dormant roots from drying out. You could pull them out and inspect them to see how the roots had fared since being dug from the growers’ fields. Today, most nurseries sell bare-root roses packaged in plastic bags, and although you now can’t tell if the plant has any roots at all, you can rest assured that whatever remains has not been allowed to dry out.

The health and even the survival of your rosebush depends on how many roots it has. Not only should it have several large, evenly distributed roots, but there should be plenty of small roots. These are what will connect the plant to its source of moisture and nutrients. If the plant has too few roots, take it back.

Planting bare-root roses is not quite the same as planting roses from a container. Soil preparation--the adding of amendments--is not as important, and except in dealing with really heavy, poorly drained soils, it may not even be necessary. What is important is the texture of the soil, and the shape and size of the planting hole.

The soil should be pulverized so that no chunks remain (don’t try this right after it has rained). Use the back side of a spading fork to thoroughly break up clods. The hole should be about a foot deep and two feet across. Place a handful of granular fertilizer in the bottom of the hole before mounding up a cone of soil; then spread the roots of the plant over it in a natural fashion. Pack the soil down as you refill the hole. A thorough watering will help further to settle the soil.

Now, what rose to plant? Beside the old favorites you’ll find the new All-America Rose Selections, pictured on these pages. They were elected to this hall of fame by rose critics around the country and are always good bets for pretty, fairly tough, disease-resistant plants. And don’t overlook other new varieties that for one reason or another weren’t nominated or selected.

Several rose authorities have singled out ‘Touch of Class’ as this year’s best All-America Rose Selection, and some suggested that it may be among the best roses of the decade. ‘Summer Fashion,’ one of the new non-AARS varieties, received similar marks. It is typical of the new floribundas that produce flowers suspiciously like those of a hybrid tea. Floribundas are supposed to have large clusters of small roses on smallish plants, but there is nothing small about the soft yellow flowers of ‘Summer Fashion,’ even though they come on short stems and in clusters. As one gardener told us, “It’s one rose that is prettier in the garden than in the catalogue pictures.”