Roses can add drama and glamor to a patio or balcony
Tree roses, compact rose varieties grafted onto tall stalks, add real drama to a patio. (HANDOUT / June 4, 2010)
But no need. Small-space gardeners can have roses too: Just grow them in containers.
It's a good option not only for those who garden on balconies or tiny city lots. In a large yard, containers of roses make lovely patio plants that can echo the charm of a rose border beyond the lawn.
A rose in a pot is, admittedly, a bit more demanding than the average houseplant.
Even a miniature rose is a woody plant, like a lilac bush or a yew hedge or a tree. It evolved to grow in the ground for many years and to spend cold winters in a dormant state. In the close confines of a container it is likely to be a bit stressed and can't easily recover from tough breaks such as wilting from lack of water, according to Steve Hutton, president and CEO of Conard-Pyle Co., a major rose breeder and grower based in West Grove, Pa. And you can't bring it in the living room for the winter.
So your first decision should be: Are you going to try to overwinter this rose? Or are you going to treat it as an annual and compost it at the end of the season? There's no shame in that.
Doug Green, a garden writer in the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River who runs a Web site at simplegiftsfarm.com, says he has grown many a rose in pots and never bothered trying to keep them over the winter. "Pitch a rose at the end of the season or give it to somebody else who can plant it in the ground," Green says. "It's 10 bucks." Even at $25, a shrub rose may be no more expensive than a fancy hanging basket of annuals.
If you do want to try overwintering the rose, make a plan before you plant.
You have several options: If you have an unheated garage or crawl space, wait until the rose goes dormant and loses its leaves in the fall. Water it thoroughly and move it into the garage where it will stay cold but the roots won't freeze hard, Hutton says. In early March, move it back outdoors and start watering it again.
If you have garden space, remove the plant from the pot once it's dormant and plant it in the ground, Green suggests. In early spring, as soon as the ground thaws but while the rose is still dormant, dig it back up and put it back in the pot. Or dig a big hole and sink the whole pot in the ground. Either way, a garden's span of earth will protect the roots far better than the thin walls and scant soil of a pot.
Dicier options include burying the plant and pot for winter in a pile of coarse, well-draining mulch, such as wood chips, or huddling a group of pots together in a window well or corner sheltered from the wind. "That might work in half of Chicago winters," Hutton says.
For hardy shrub roses, you should only need to prune out dead wood in early spring.
Whether your love affair is a summer's fling or a long-term commitment, all roses in pots have certain basic requirements:
Full sun. A rose needs a minimum of six hours of sun a day. In an urban situation, "it's sometimes hard to get full sun because other buildings are shading your balcony," says Fern Richardson, who gardens on a condo balcony in Orange County, Calif., and has a Web site called Lifeonthe
A good, big pot. Roses are pretty thirsty and need as much soil around the roots to hold moisture as possible, especially since containers dry out faster than soil in the ground. The minimum is 16 to 18 inches in diameter. Even miniature roses are best in larger containers, perhaps in a mixed planting with annuals, according to Eileen Carruthers, rose buyer at Chalet Nursery in Wilmette. Roses need excellent drainage, too, so make sure your container has a hole in the bottom to let surplus water escape.
Even moisture. Letting a rose's roots dry out can make it vulnerable to pests and diseases, according to Hutton. So check the soil often, and when the surface feels dry, "soak it," Green says. You'll need to water pots more often than roses in the ground, and especially often in hot weather.
A "self-watering" or "sub-irrigated" container can really help here. These pots have a reservoir beneath the soil from which the potting mix and the plant's roots wick up just as much water as needed to balance what evaporates. If you keep the reservoir filled, it evens out the water supply. Make sure the reservoir has an overflow to prevent overwatering and root rot.
Good soil. Actually, the thing to use is a soilless potting mix, rather than anything labeled "potting soil" or "garden soil." Potting mix will be light, fluffy and full of organic matter, so it both holds the right amount of water and lets any surplus drain away.