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Beginner’s Guide to Bare-Root Roses

Those experienced with bare-root roses are typically delighted when their David Austin mail-order delivery arrives at the right time for planting in late winter or early spring. When they open the box, they see a fresh, plump, well-grown bush that is ready to root. However, those new to bare-root roses might not recognize this at first glance, for the compact, leafless plant in the box little resembles the flowering rose they picked from the catalogue or website.

New rosarians, take heart — that bundle of stems and roots is a dormant powerhouse, just waiting to burst forth and grow once planted. This is the normal state of roses in winter, whether they’re in your garden or newly prepped for shipping as “bare-root” nursery stock, says horticulturist Rebecca Koraytem, U.S. sales executive for David Austin Roses Ltd, the British hybridizer known globally for its voluptuous, deliciously fragrant English Roses.

“Dormant roses are easy to ship and easy to plant,” Koraytem says. “And the right time to plant them is when conditions are optimal for rooting. Once planted in cool soil in late winter or early spring, bare-root roses quickly establish strong root systems and leaf out. Within a few months they’re blooming.”

There’s a logic to this, she says. “Bare root roses are all about root growth. A dormant rose has no other demands on its energy, no leaves, no flowers, no active growth. It puts all of its energy into root growth.” The resulting root system benefits the rose over its lifetime, says Koraytem, quickly putting it on par with the strength of potted roses available at garden centers later in the planting season.

A bare-root rose on grafted stock.
Note. the fat bud joint.

Following is Koraytem’s step-by-step Beginner’s Guide to Bare Root Roses. While the planting process is remarkably simple, here she adds additional detail and rationale to give novice gardeners a boost.

Order early. If you’ve fallen in love with particular varieties, don’t wait too late to order — popular varieties may sell out. Top mail-order nurseries like David Austin Roses take orders year round, but they only ship bare root roses at the right time for planting in your area — which is when your local conditions are best for rooting.

Bare root shipping season. In North America, bare-root roses are shipped January through May, with warmer areas receiving deliveries in January/February/March and and colder areas in April/May.

Plant when conditions are best. In any given area, the time to plant bare root roses is late winter into early spring, once the soil thaws and is still cool, but not overly wet. These are the weeks before last local frost. Remember: frosts won’t damage newly-planted bare root roses as they have no leaves yet — and all of the rooting action takes place underground. This typically occurs when daytime temperatures average between 40° F and 60° F. Once average daytime temperatures rise above 70° F, newly-planted bare root roses may struggle unless babied with a bit of shade and regular, careful watering.

Open the box right away. A well-packed rose will arrive wrapped to retain moisture so the roots are damp and not dried out. Always inspect plant material when it’s delivered. If you’re not ready to plant, replace the wrappings and store the box in a cool area until planting day. Ideally plant within a week (two weeks at most). Keep the box as cold as possible, but not freezing, and never in a heated room.

Don’t trim roots. Don’t reduce root length prior to planting. If you spot a broken root, damaged in shipping, just snip off that bit. Leave all other roots as they are.

Bare-root rose on its own roots.
Note: there is no bud joint.

Soak to rehydrate. When ready to plant, remove the rose from its wrappings and soak it in cool clean water for several hours or overnight. Submerge the roots totally. It’s fine to submerge the whole works (roots and canes).

Choose sunny spots. English Roses love full sun, but will thrive and bloom with as little as four or five hours of good sun exposure daily. In hot, dry areas with intense sun, like Phoenix, give roses morning sun and afternoon shading for best results.

Dig good holes. Plant one rose per hole. A good hole is about 16 inches deep by 16 inches wide. Be sure to break up and loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole with a shovel or garden fork. This allows the roots to settle in more easily.

Prepare the soil. Roses like soil amended with organic material. Before returning dug-up soil to the planting hole, mix in some aged garden compost, well-rotted manure or bagged compost from the garden center (three shovelfuls is plenty).

Position correctly. Most bare-root roses are sold as “grafted plants.” This means the bush of the variety you purchase has been grafted onto the rootstock of a variety known to be particularly hardy under a wide range of conditions. Your bare-root rose will have a fat joint called the “bud union,” the point where the bush and root stock meet. When planting in warmer areas, position the bud union just below soil surface. In colder areas (below USDA Zone 6), position the bud union two or three inches below the soil surface. For those who choose “own-root” roses (a good option for selected varieties in coldest areas), there is no graft and no bud union. In this case, position the juncture of the main stem and roots just below ground level.

Back fill with soil. Position the rose in the hole, then back fill with the amended soil by gently pushing the soil firmly around and in between the roots. There’s no need to create a mound in the hole to sit the rose on, that’s old news. The key is to refill the hole, around the upright rose, working the soil between the roots with your hands . You want to create root-to-soil contact and eliminate any air pockets. After filling in the hole, lightly tamp down the surface with your feet to close any remaining soil air pockets and firm things up.

Feed roses. English Roses pump out blooms from early summer till frost, which takes a lot of energy! When properly fed, roses are stronger and bloom more abundantly. For ease and on-going feeding, apply a high-quality, time-release fertilizer suited to roses and your climate. Follow product directions, taking care to scatter the product evenly.

Water well. Roses are thirsty by nature and benefit from regular deep watering that reaches the roots. Water well when first planted. (But don’t overdo it and drown the plants. Roots cannot grow in super-saturated muck). Once growth begins, water regularly. Depending upon rainfall and weather conditions in your area, it is recommended to water newly-planted roses twice a week. Once established — after about three months — water every two weeks, watering more often as needed when the weather is hot.

Spread mulch. It’s a good idea to top off the area around newly-planted roses with several inches of organic mulch, such as compost, hardwood chips, shredded bark or pine needles. This keeps soil cool, helps retain soil moisture, diminishes weed growth and adds nutrients to the soil over time. Refresh mulch each spring.

Deadheading. English Roses are easy to groom and don’t call for fancy pruning techniques. Over the bloom season, feel free to snip off faded blooms, as you wish. After a flush of flowers, remove finished flower clusters.

Winter protection. In colder areas (USDA Zones 5 and below) add several inches of organic matter around the base of new roses to provide winter protection.

Three roses planted in a triangle grow to appear as a single bush.

Design tip. If one rose bush is lovely, a group of three is often more so. Planting three English Roses of the same variety grouped closely in a triangle allows the bushes to knit together as they mature to create one very full planting instead of three smaller ones. In cooler areas, space the three bushes about 18 or 20 inches apart. In warmer areas, space them 24 inches apart.

For U.S. and Canadian gardeners.

David Austin English Roses are available at davidaustinroses.com or by calling 800-328-8893. Many English Rose varieties are also available at fine garden retailers that carry Austin roses. All David Austin roses sold in North America are grown in the U.S.

Austin’s Handbook of Roses/USA Edition is a rose lovers’ delight with more than 100 pages of gorgeous photography, variety descriptions and rose gardening information — it is available at no charge, upon request at davidaustinroses.com.