All my rose-growing secrets

Apricot Mystery Rose
Apricot Mystery Rose

UPDATE: I no longer use Bayer products or any other type of herbicide or pesticide. I haven’t since 2008. As Maya Angelou says, “When we learn better, we do better.”

My friend, Dollybelle, sent me an email the other day, and I’ve thought about it ever since. Back and forth, we discussed our gardens and what was going on in our garden club. We’re both officers in the Central Oklahoma Hemerocallis Society (i.e., long name for daylily club.)

Her garden is a lovely one located in a town near here, and mine is rural. Yet, we grow similar things. We both like the English cottage style, and we both grow lots of roses, perennials and daylilies.

She might not realize it, but over the last three years, she taught me many things, including to use Milorganite on my daylilies. I was reluctant at first. Milorganite was expensive, and my garden was so large that I relied upon what I could achieve with leaf mold and manure. However, after touring her daylily garden, which was on the American Hemerocallis Society’s Regional Convention tour, and after she won two of the top prizes, I decided Milorganite deserved a try. My daylilies have never been more robust, although for the first few days, my garden smelled like a sewage treatment plant.

Another shot of the mystery rose

She was also the first person I knew who grew Rudbeckia maxima, an amazing coneflower which topped out at over six feet. I bought two plants at Bustani Plant Farm this year.

At the end of her email, this amazing gardener, for whom I have so much respect, asked me to tell her how I grow roses. What were my secrets?


‘Carefree Beauty’ Rose
‘Carefree Beauty’

I don’t think I have any, and I don’t always succeed. I have a new rose, ‘Mardi Gras,’ which is very unhappy. Although it’s an AARS winner, and I’ve given it every advantage, it may die. That’s the thing about gardening. It keeps me humble. Good or bad, some things just don’t survive.

However, in light of Dollybelle’s question, here are my best rose growing tips:

1. Plant your new roses in good soil. Don’t just use standard garden soil unless you have amended it for some time. I would suggest Miracle Grow Organic Choice since we can no longer find their rose soil locally. I mix it with my garden soil. Or, if I’m planting in a richly amended area, I use Back to Nature compost, assuming I’ve run out of homemade compost. Roses are extremely heavy feeders, so at the bottom of the hole, I also mix in some kind of flower fertilizer. I like Osmocote, but any long acting fertilizer is fine. I then backfill the hole with the amended soil. I tamp down the hole with my foot because you want good soil contact with the roots.

‘Carefree Beauty’ closeup
Closeup of ‘Carefree Beauty’

2. After I plant the rose, I top it off with alfalfa pellets, which I mix into the topsoil. This is a new addition for me this year. Then, I mix water with Garden-Ville’s Sea Tea (a mix of “Compost tea, Fish emulsion, Molasses, Humic acid, Phosphoric acid, Nutri-Leaf Soluble Fertilizer and Acadian Seaweed Extract”) in my watering can, and I water it in. I do not have a particular ratio. I just pour some on the bottom of a two and a half gallon watering can and fill it with water.

3. Following with more water, I watch for any holes in the soil around the rose. Holes mean air pockets, and you don’t want those. The Sea Tea helps with transplant shock or any other stress. In fact, I do this with all my transplants. Garden-Ville is this cool organic place in Austin and San Antonio. We went there on vacation when the head gardener at Antique Rose Emporium suggested I visit. We hauled the Sea Tea all the way home from San Antonio. Thank goodness the bottle didn’t spill. I’ve had the same gallon for several years. Apparently, it never goes bad.

4. I top it with some mulch. Mulch is essential for keeping roots cool and maintaining consistent soil moisture. It also keeps soil from splashing up onto the leaves. That lessens blackspot (a huge problem in Oklahoma.) One day, I’ll write a post about mulch, because I use several different kinds. I like those which degrade into the soil in a season or two. Just use whatever you like best.

‘Baronne Prevost’
‘Gertrude Jekyll’

5. For general rose care, I use Bayer All in One on my most demanding roses, the ones which should be in rose nursing homes like: ‘Madame Isaac Pereire,’ ‘Baronne Prevost’ (at left,) most of my David Austin roses, ‘Reines des Violettes,’ Mystery Rose I (apricot) and Mystery Rose II (pink.) This keeps me from spraying as much as possible. I usually wait out mildew, but if blackspot is horrible (and some years it is,) I spray Ortho Garden Disease Control (formerly known as Daconil.) I try to limit the use of both of these because they are chemicals and not organic. If you want to spray organically, you can try copper, but you’ll need a sticking agent. Otherwise, copper washes right off. In the early spring, you can spray rose canes with lime sulphur. It smells, but it helps to control blackspot and mildew. I’d like to try Rose Pharm, which is advertised as a natural insecticide, miticide and fungicide, but it has a lot of oil, which might burn the leaves. They say to apply it in the evening.

6. I water my roses with soaker hoses. Someday, I will get a irrigation system, but I will still not overhead water my rose beds with sprinklers. I will use bubblers because getting the leaves wet is the first step in blackspot and mildew problems.

‘Jefferson’ rose
‘Marie Pavie’

7. I keep an eye on the roses by walking around every evening and deadheading. To deadhead, you clip off the blown (fully bloomed) rose at the first five leaf cluster. With some cultivars, like ‘Belinda’s Dream,’ you can snap them off instead of using clippers. Deadheading is important because it tells the rose to produce another batch of blooms if it is remontant. If it only blooms once, it stops the rose from producing rosehips which, although pretty, sap energy from the plant.

Much of garden care is just watching, observing the plants, seeing how they interact with each other and their climate. Right now, ‘Carefree Sunshine’ is crowding ‘About Face’ so I’ll probably need to move ‘About Face’ next February. It won’t hurt it this summer.

As to pests, I watch out for aphids, which I blast off with a shot of water unless there are ladybugs on the bush. Ladybugs or ladybeetles will eliminate the aphids for me if I give them time.

When I was a novice gardener, it was very hard for me to wait on anything. I wanted all colors blooming all the time, and I was terrified if I saw any kind of pest. Now, I’ve realized a border filled with only annuals makes for a boring landscape, and most pests take care of themselves.

That’s all my rosey secrets for the day. What about yours? Do you have any garden secrets you’d like to share?


  1. Deborah says:

    Thank you so much for all the wonderful information. It’s given me inspiration to plant a rose garden!

  2. Curtis says:

    I saved this to my bookmarks for later. When I get some roses. Great post.

    Thanks, Curtis, I hope it helps. You can always email me if you have questions.~~Dee

  3. Mr. McGregor's Daughter says:

    I’m going to have to take notes here – thanks for going into all the detail. You should tell Lisa where Milorganite comes from, (why it smells). It’s relatively cheap in the Chicago area (lower transport cost), especially compared to another Southern Wisconsin fertilizer product, Father Dom’s Duck Doo.

    Father Dom’s Duck Doo? You’ve got to be kidding.~~Dee

  4. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I don’t have any secrets for roses. I can’t grow them and after reading all you do for yours I know why. I will have to
    make a list the next time I think I will try roses. Maybe with all you do to them I might have some success.

    I have never heard of Miloganite. I will have to look into that.

    Lisa, MMD said I should tell you why Milorganite smells. It is made from Milwaukee human sewage. Yuck, huh? The roses only take a lot of care at the beginning of the season.~~Dee

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    This is a great source of information to demystify rose growing and show others how you achieve such beautiful blooms. I like what you wrote at the end: “When I was a novice gardener, it was very hard for me to wait on anything. I wanted all colors blooming all the time, and I was terrified if I saw any kind of pest. Now, I’ve realized a border filled with only annuals makes for a boring landscape, and most pests take care of themselves.” That is so true! Occasionally I meet a new gardener who doesn’t want a plant that blooms only for a week or two. “One burst and it’s all over,” they point out. But the seasonal changes give us variety as well as beauty, and besides, those one-week flowers are often worth the wait.

    Thanks, Pam. That means a lot coming from you. Seasonal change occurs in our lives. I think the garden should reflect that too.~~Dee

  6. béa says:

    OOOOOOOOhhhhhhhhhhhhh quelles merveilleuses roses.

    Bea, Merci de votre visite et vos aimables paroles. S’il vous plaît revenir.~~Dee

  7. Philip says:

    Great advice. I certainly can use it as San Francisco is not perfect for rose growing. The main problem is the fog which comes in the evening. I have learned to only water at dawn to prevent powdery mildew. Yes, that is me trying to not make a racket first thing in the morning. I does get me out and about early, which is great. I fill the birdbath each morning at the same time. Thanks for the informative post!

    Philip, I hope it helps. You’re right, the fog can’t help but create more powdery mildew. Thanks for visiting.~~Dee

  8. I loved your post. I grow a lot of roses also. I hope to see more pictures of your roses and hear more about how you grow them. I am going to check out the sea tea. How do you think its superior to fish and seaweed emulsion? I too love the Bayer All in One–it makes caring for some roses a lot easier.
    Heirloom Gardener

    Hi HG, thanks for stopping by. The antique and heirloom roses seem to like Bayer a lot.~~Dee

  9. Trudi says:

    Fantastic roses and good advice. I have just read about Organic Neem oil to spray the roses to control diseases like blackspot and mildew. Some Years my roses suffer terrible and I hate to use poisons. Neem oil will be my next trial.

    Trudi, even with all I do, some years are harder on the roses than others. This year has been a perfect year for blooms.~~Dee

  10. Okie Sister says:

    Great tips. I have a lot of problems with the blackspots every year. I did know not to get water on the leaves. I’ll try some of these other hints. Thanks.

    Okie Sister, I hope they help.~~Dee

  11. deb says:

    What a great lesson. If I were to do any of these things, my roses would think they were in heaven. They get nothing. A whole lot of nothing. This is why you have such pretty colors and I have pink and more pink. Maybe I will branch out to fussier roses and follow your great advice.

    Hi Deb, You can get ‘Carefree Sunshine’ which is a yellow, and it’s not fussy. All it got this year was a little alfalfa @ the beginning.~~Dee

  12. Melanie says:

    Thanks for the tips! I only grow one rose here, a climber. I love it but haven’t had the urge yet to add any more. Of course, the key word is “yet” 🙂

    Melanie, oh, surely there’s one you have to have.~~Dee

  13. I’m really glad you did this post, although now I know I’m basically doing almost everything wrong. 🙂 I did feed them and they are so full and beautiful this year, I can see that was smart. And I know how to prune and I deadhead.
    The rest, oh, dear. I have a LOT to learn! Thanks for pointing the way!

    Kathryn, you can’t be doing everything wrong. I’ve seen photos of your roses, and they are lovely.~~Dee

  14. Cinj says:

    Interesting post. I’ve never really worried too much about my rose problems, they grow and flourish well all summer. Where I’ve run into trouble is not getting them back the next year. I do fertilize with rose fertiziler though. Mine have always also been mulched. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything besides that though. Well, covering them in winter but they’ve just started sprouting so I won’t talk about that right now!

    Cinj, your climate zone is way harsher than mine on the cold front. If I were you, I would look into some of Dr. Griffith Buck’s roses and also the Canadian Explorer rose series. Both are bred for tough climes.~~Dee

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