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Wintering Roses 101
My roses never survive the winter.
It's too cold here to grow roses.
How do I get my roses to survive the winter?

If you've not had success wintering roses, have been afraid to try, or have taken the leap this year and put in roses for the first time, this article is for you.

Plants have evolved to adapt to their environment. There are many wild roses growing in some of the coldest places in the United States. Most of them you wouldn't recognize as roses, unless someone pointed them out. They are supremely suited to the dry, arid regions they live.

Breeders of roses have worked very hard to incorporate this hardiness into modern roses with varying degrees of success. Roses grown on their own roots will generally winter better than grafted roses (roses grafted onto a different variety for roots).

The first thing you need to know is what zone you live in. There are two sources, and for beginners I suggest you stay with the tried and true, the USDA Zone Map.

It is much better to plant and prepare for colder conditions than you have then vice versa.

Research

Winter zones require research. Take the names of the roses you grow, or wish to grow and use the search rose option on HelpMeFind.com. Each rose has a page with information on the variety, most note zone hardiness.

If a rose can withstand winter conditions it is considered 'hardy'. Those which don't do well below 32 degrees are referred to as 'tender'.

If you have a rose with a zone rating higher than where you live, don't despair. Proper wintering can help these 'tender' roses come through. They are more work, but if you are committed, in many cases, it can be done.

If a rose is rated as hardy and dies, one of two things happened:

  1. The bud union froze out. (The bud union is the knobby part where all the canes sprout from.) Plant your bud unions 3-4 inches below soil level. This will ensure they don't freeze, even if you have an unusually cold winter. It is my opinion that no matter where you live the bud union should be below soil level.
  2. There are weather conditions which will kill roses, no matter what you do. If you have lots of rain followed by a quick drop into the 20s the canes will burst, and bud unions can freeze with the ground. Even roses growing on their own roots will die in such conditions.

If you have an ungainly, arching caned rose in your yard which blooms red in the spring, it is probably because a grafted rose died and Dr. Huey was the root stock used. Dr. Huey is extremely hardy which is why it is so widely used as root stock and can grow when the graft dies.

It is my opinion that no matter where you live the bud union should be below soil level by at least an inch. If you are in a cold zone plant your bud unions 3-4 inches below soil level. This will ensure they don't freeze, even if you have an unusually cold winter.

Winter zone rosarians understand there is always a chance they will lose roses over the winter.

Please note; there are some roses you will never be able to grow in zones 7 and below. It is a fact. Save yourself time, money and heartache by accepting the limitations of your zone.

Covering roses

Mounding/covering facilitates a constant temperature. It isn't to keep roses warm, as most people suppose. Winter temperatures can fluctuate greatly. Protecting the roses from these fluctuations increases the likelihood the plant will survive. It also protects the canes from severe cold (below zero F) and drying wind, which might otherwise kill them.

Wait until the first 'killing frost' to cover your roses.

If you cover them too early, little critters love to make homes in mounding material around the roses. They can and do nibble on the canes. You will lose those canes should this happen. By the time a killing frost comes along, most of these pests have made a home for themselves some where else.

Also, moisture trapped by mounding materials can cause fungal problems and rot the canes if it is too warm when you mound.

Fall Pruning

Opinions on this vary greatly. If you are going to show your roses, ask the local Rose Society.

I don't show my roses, and I don't prune them in the fall. Nor do I suggest anyone in a freezing zone do so, unless otherwise instructed by an experienced local rosarian.

Pruned canes dry out faster than an uncut cane. Modern roses feed off of the starch and moisture stored in the canes over the dormant period. The more they have the better as I see it. There is no way of knowing how much damage the rose will sustain over the winter. If you prune too far in the fall, and it's a hard winter, the bush could die or struggle in the spring. It's easier to cut more in the spring than to not have enough.

The exception to this would be lots of wet, heavy snow or high winds in your area. If you know the snow or wind are going to break canes, prune the roses to height they are less likely to sustain damage. Wrapping the bushes in a light layer of burlap will also help. Gathered together the canes have more strength, than they do individually.

Wintering

What I'm going to outline are generally accepted rules of wintering roses.

There are micro-climates which may make things different within zones. For example: I can grow some roses zoned as high as 7 in a USDA 5/6 zone. Thirteen miles directly east of me, they need roses zoned for 4. If you go thirteen miles south, most zone 7 roses flourish. With this in mind, the best place to ask for wintering advice is your local Rose Society, or someone who grows roses close to you.[HMF Editor - Let's not forget using HelpMeFind to find and contact people in your area.]

Zones which get frost and don't see temperatures below 25 degrees F
It's been my experience winter protection is not necessary, and could cause more problems than its worth. If your roses are healthy and the bud union is covered, they should be fine. In dry years make sure they are kept evenly moist.
Zones which are unlikely to experience below zero F temperatures
Stop feeding and dead heading (removing old blooms) your roses about a month before the first anticipated frost. New growth is very tender and it will be lost. Feeding and dead heading encourages new growth, which isn't wanted in the fall.

Do continue to water them. It is easy when the weather cools to forget to water your roses. A healthy, well hydrated rose bush will stand a much better chance surviving the winter. Water them until the first 'killing frost', a frost which turns everything black, limp and dormant.

Make absolutely certain your bud unions are well protected. If your bushes aren't planted deeply, mound four to five inches over the bud union with compost or soil from another part of the yard and pat it into place. If you have roses in pots, gather them together and insulate them with leaves, mulch or straw. Chicken wire works well as a pot corral to contain the insulation.

Zones below zero F
Follow above instructions on feeding, dead heading and watering. The colder it is likely to get, the more you want to do.
Zones above -20 F
As a precaution climbers can be wrapped in burlap or tar paper to protect them from dry winds and cold.

If your bud unions aren't deep, mound them with up to six inches of compost or soil from another part of the yard. Mound the bushes with leaves or straw, small or young bushes cover completely.

Because my bud unions are deep, I cover my roses with straw and call it done. I don't cover or tip my climbing roses, because I've chosen hardy varieties. My roses have survived in short periods of -20 temperatures wintered this way, but there was extensive cane damage.

I don't like or recommend commercial rose covers. They hold moisture which causes rot and fungal problems, and they force you to prune the rose to fit. If you feel you need something to hold cover material, cut the bottom out of a large nursery pot and place it around the rose. You can also make collars for keeping wintering material in place with newspaper, old ice cream pails, chicken wire, or tomato cages, anything which will hold the mulch where you want it.

Zones below -20 F
Follow above instructions on feeding, dead-heading, watering, pruning.
  1. Completely cover your roses with compost or soil from another part of the yard.
  2. Tip the rose, climbers included. After the rose is dormant, dig a ditch on one side that will accommodate the entire bush. Gently loosen the roots on the other side and tip the bush into the trench covering it completely.
  3. Plant your roses in pots so they can be lifted in the fall. You can then dig a ditch which will accommodate all of your plants, and bury them. Or store them in an unheated garage or shed. Do not set pots directly on cement floors. Place a board or other sort of spacer between the pot and cement. Take care to check them occasionally to make sure they don't dry out. In extreme cold, place them in garbage bags and fill with leaves, straw or mulch for insulation.
  4. I do not advocate wintering roses in the house, unless there is no other way. Roses don't like it in the house for a number of reasons I'm not going to get into here. Spider mites love roses in the house, and are very difficult to get rid of. It is best to keep them outside.

Hardier varieties of roses don't need this much protection. Most modern hybrid teas, floribundas and grandifloras do. Experience will tell you just how much will be necessary. Until you have that experience it is much better to over protect, rather than under protect.

Spring

Don't be fooled by an early warm spell. If you haven't paid attention to when frost is no longer an issue, ask someone. Wait until it is normal for your area to no longer have hard frost. The roses will be perfectly happy to wait from the security of their shelter. There was a hard freeze Easter in 2007. Many experienced rosarians lost roses because they uncovered them too early. Even those of us who didn't lost roses to that freeze.

Do uncover your roses after the threat of a hard freeze has passed. When night temperatures are consistently over 32 degrees, it is time to uncover your roses. A normal frost won't hurt roses, nor will a late snow.

It has been my experience that most people who grow roses love to talk about them. If you have specific questions, don't hesitate to ask a local rosarian.

Reprinting, use or distribution of this article is prohibited without prior approval from its author(s).  Copyright 2014 by Wendy Christy, all rights reserved.
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