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How to Grow (Prize-Winning) Roses

The simple answer for winning at rose shows is to grow more roses, though even growers of one rose have taken Queen of the Show. On show day, only some roses have the potential to win. The more roses one grows the greater chance of their being a winner amongst them.

That said, we want to grow fine roses whether or not we show. Who better to help us grow roses well than those who consistently win big at shows? Some of us may be unwilling to jump through the same hoops to success, but perhaps, we can glean from their methods a trick or two to help us satisfy our own wants, and if we are preaching to the already converted, I apologize.

One must remember that we owe much of our knowledge and interest in roses to men and women of the Victorian age, whose interest in showing roses prompted the formation of societies such as ours and the hybridizing of roses that re-bloomed on stronger and stronger necks, with high-centred blooms such as we now take for granted on the show table and from florists.

One could argue that there are already dozens of books to aid us. So there are, but we live in a cold climate here in middle North America, on a till blanket (an un-stratified deposit of stiff, glacial clay), with a moraine or two (or three) of sand and gravel here and there on top. The soil is sweet, a little too sweet (7.3 pH or so) for the ideal growing of roses, and it has too much lime (calcium, the main filler in fertilizer by the way) and too little magnesium, so what to do?

I approached four of the winningest, rose growers in our society, the Wm. Saunders Roses Society, in South Western, Ontario: George Rae, Fred Kristoff, Basil Kelly and Lloyd Megerle, for their thoughts. I am their scribe.

We met at Fred Kristoff's home in Aylmer on a hot, summer afternoon and sat under the awning of the deck in a loose circle sipping iced tea and the like. They are largely interested in hybrid teas and floribundas. They choose to grow what they see and like in gardens, nurseries and shows. The vendor or source of the rose varieties does not much matter, but none are impressed with roses from PAN-AM, nor do they like boxed roses, those in bags, nor waxed ones, since they are usually grown on Dr. Huey root-stock. Dr. Huey seems a better choice in the southern US. Besides being less hardy, the bud-union (where the desired variety is grafted to the root-stock) is often much higher than that grown on Rosa multi-flora, the preferred root-stock, which means the roots must be planted lower, or alternatively, the plant can be placed slanted in the planting hole. All agree that the bud-union must be at least two inches (5 cm) below grade to protect it from the freeze/thaw cycles of the spring, the usual killer of grafted roses.

Our panel pointed out that potted roses purchased in the spring are really bare-root roses potted up for sale and can be treated accordingly. Basil Kelly, Lloyd Megerle and Fred Kristoff soak bare-root roses in a bucket of water for three to four hours, or overnight, before planting. George Rae doesn't soak, but dips each rose in a slurry of soil before planting. He doesn't trim the roots at all. Basil Kelly does if any are broken. Lloyd Megerle and Fred Kristoff prune root ends. Potted roses bought during the summer are planted as is.

George Rae plants in the native soil with no amendments (It should be noted that all four of our panellists are gardening in clay and not a sandy moraine above.). The others add one half a cup of bone meal to the planting hole. Basil Kelly amends with manure and peat moss. They back fill one half full. Then, water; then, fill. After the hole is filled, Fred Kristoff and Lloyd Megerle prune each cane to about twelve inches. George Rae leaves the canes as long as possible. Fred Kristoff and Lloyd Megerle do not hill, but Basil Kelly and George Rae do. George Rae plants in the autumn because the plants only have to develop roots, not roots, canes and blooms. Lloyd Megerle says he loses plants planted in the fall. George Rae says that they must be hilled for protection. Basil Kelly and Fred Kristoff plant mostly in the spring.

They intone, "Feed 'em. Water, water, water." And rain water is the best. George Rae has a soil analysis taken every two years, on the basis of which he adds nothing else to the soil but grass clippings as food and mulch. Lloyd Megerle mulches with leaves and fertilizes with Urea (45-0-0) and 7-7-7. He also adds a liquid feed of Miracle Grow mid-summer. Neither Fred Kristoff nor Basil Kelly mulch. Basil Kelly buys whatever granular fertilizer is on sale, one with more potassium (P). He also gives the roses a drink of alfalfa tea and musky fish. Fred Kristoff uses 7-7-7 and/or whatever is on sale. All agree horse manure is the best compost there is.

In autumn, Fred Kristoff, George Rae and Basil Kelly rough prune knee-high or a little higher. They fine prune in spring. Lloyd Megerle dead-heads and forgets about them. Fred Kristoff, Basil Kelly and Lloyd Megerle hill their roses in the fall with soil from another part of the garden. George Rae hills with leaves.

As early as possible in spring, Lloyd Megerle and George Rae apply a dormant spray of lime sulphur to kill over-wintering fungi. George Rae considers this the most important preventive maintenance. None spray anything else unless the roses show need. They use Funginex and Daconil (available in Canada only through farmers from farm supply centres) on an as-needed basis.

From pruning to rose show, blooms take six or seven weeks to develop. Fred Kristoff and Lloyd Megerle do two prunings in spring:1, the removal of dead wood in March; 2, when the forsythia blooms, to three or four buds. Fred Kristoff , however, does not prune with shows in mind, but for show in the garden. George Rae and Lloyd Megerle disbud, that is, take secondary buds away so that the remaining bud will become larger, more noble. George Rae aims for nineteen inch stems. Fred Kristoff does not disbud, aiming for more blooms, but he has still won his fair share of prizes, including first prizes on Wednesday and Saturday in different shows with the same bloom, stored between-times in a fridge without any fruit in it (Fruit emit a gas which harms the blooms.)!

I could add my own variations to growing fine roses, like not hilling in fall and pruning the hybrid teas and floribundas to the ground each March when the ground is still frozen to remove over-wintering fungi and insects (There, I snuck that in.), but theirs show there is no perfect method but many, and general trends like deeply planting the bud-union serve to produce magnificent bushes.

I am indebted to our panellists, Lloyd Megerle, George Rae, Basil Kelly and Fred Kristoff, for taking the time to discuss growing roses together with me, in part, to repay those who have helped us in our successes by aiding others new to the joys of growing great roses.

Steve Elkerton

Many thanks to Roses Canada for kind permission to reprint this article.

© The Wm.Saunders Rose Society