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How to grow better roses? Start now

Baldo Villegas grows close to 3,500 rose bushes in his Orangevale garden. He’ll host a winter rose care workshop Jan. 13 in Roseville.
Baldo Villegas grows close to 3,500 rose bushes in his Orangevale garden. He’ll host a winter rose care workshop Jan. 13 in Roseville. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Ask any rose grower; January can be a very busy time in the garden.

“The main thing people want to know? They don’t know when to start pruning,” said Baldo Villegas, who grows close to 3,500 bushes at his Orangevale home.

That time is now, an urgency underlined by several rose-related events Saturday including a morning-long winter rose care workshop hosted by the Sierra Foothills Rose Society.

“I try to relieve their fear of pruning,” said Villegas, who serves as the workshop’s emcee and will offer advice on gear and methods.

“The number one question people ask me: What kind of tools should I use?” he said. “About 99.9 percent of the time, it will be a bypass pruner, so get a good one. Go to a local nursery and try some of the better quality pruners with replaceable parts. They’re a little costlier, but they make a huge difference.

“Make sure to protect yourself, too,” he added. “I always recommend getting a tetanus shot. (Harmful bacteria can live on rose prickles.) Wear gloves. If nothing else, wear thick cow-leather gloves. But if you have a choice, get goat-leather gloves; they protect better. You don’t want to poke yourself in the garden.”

Roses rank as America’s favorite (and official) flower, but in recent years, rose care has changed dramatically. It’s simpler.

“We are so lucky with our California weather to be able to grow really beautiful healthy roses completely pesticide and fungicide free, which translates to river-, environmental- and pet-friendly gardening,” said longtime consulting rosarian and Sacramento County master gardener Ellie Longanecker. “Yeah!”

Longanecker led efforts to restore the beloved McKinley Park memorial rose garden to its earlier grandeur. But today’s rose garden is even better than it was when it was originally planted 90 years ago. Sprawling over 1.5 acres, the rose garden is Sacramento’s largest public display with more than 1,200 bushes. (It’s featured in the current hit film “Lady Bird.”)

Today’s McKinley roses stay beautiful and bloom continuously without spraying chemicals. In addition to environmental benefits, that cuts costs as well as maintenance.

The secret? Spacing, said Longanecker, who also grows hundreds of roses at her Carmichael home. The bushes benefit from good air circulation.

“First, I do not overcrowd the roses,” she said. “I would rather have fewer well-cared for roses than so many I can’t give the attention they need.”

Some rose species need more room than others, noted Kathryn Mackenzie, a longtime volunteer at the City Cemetery’s Historic Rose Garden, which hosts two pruning demonstrations Saturday. That’s particularly true of old rose varieties.

“Do not plant them too close together,” she said. “While often it is tempting to plant hybrid teas and floribundas close together so you can grow more varieties, this practice will not show Old Garden Roses to their best advantage. When you have purchased several Old Garden Roses in one-gallon containers, it seems reasonable to plant them three or four feet apart without realizing that after three or four years, they want to be much bigger than your average hybrid tea or floribunda.”

Prune these old-timers lightly, Mackenzie added. That way they don’t have to regrow so much of their size before blooming.

“From my experience, tea roses, for example, look their best when they’re pruned lightly and allowed to reach their full size, which, in California, is big!” Mackenzie said. “When they attain their full size, perhaps 5 or 6 feet tall and wide, their graceful arching structure and nodding blooms cascading from above look their best.”

During winter pruning, Longanecker cuts out center canes to further promote better air circulation around foliage.

To stop rose diseases before they start, Longanecker recommends planting varieties with built-in disease resistance. Because roses primarily are grown for their flowers, she chooses varieties that rebloom often from spring through frost.

Once established, roses can thrive for decades. That’s why it’s important to get them off to a strong start.

“(Before planting), amend flower beds with lots of compost or healthy organic material (such as well-rotted horse manure),” Longanecker said.

Not all roses are the same, noted Maryellen Mackenzie (no relation to Kathryn) of the Woodland Library Rose Club, which tends a large collection of antique roses as well as contemporary hybrids. The library will host its rose workshop Saturday, too.

“Ultimately, you need to know something about your roses,” she said. “You should know if they’re once blooming or repeat blooming and when each needs to be pruned. You need to know their habit – do they want to be large or small or somewhere in between? If you can take the time to understand these few things about your roses, you will be rewarded with a greater appreciation of your roses, more robust blooms and much healthier plants.”

Although most rose species benefit from winter pruning, some do not, Maryellen Mackenzie added.

“Once-blooming OGRs (Old Garden Roses), such as Gallicas, Albas and Ramblers, should be pruned right after blooming and not during the winter,” she explained. “The reason is that most of these roses will only bloom off of year-old wood. Avoid heavy pruning other than removing dead or diseased growth.

“Repeat-blooming OGRs can be pruned during winter when dormant,” she added. “Outside of removing dead and diseased growth, pruning a cane back one-third is a good rule of thumb. New OGRs should not be pruned in the first two years.”

Once roses are pruned, cleanup is important. The spores of such fungal diseases as black spot, rust and powdery mildew may be lurking on dead leaves or atop old mulch. (Remember to strip off any remaining leaves on the plant, too; that foliage also carries spores.)

“I think sanitation is really huge,” Maryellen Mackenzie said. “After you’ve pruned a rose, it’s so important to clean all leaves and debris from around the base of the plant. The old leaves in particular are harbingers of fungi and potential disease that can winter over. So, remove all the leaves, debris and detritus and get it out of your garden; do not compost it.

“For more protection, I then cover the soil with a layer of good clean compost and then fresh mulch to further separate the rose from any potential diseases remaining in the soil.”

Proper sanitation is vital for large public collections as well as home gardens, said cemetery volunteer Kathryn Mackenzie.

“As a volunteer at the Old City Cemetery Historic Rose Garden, I learned the importance of having sharp, clean pruning shears and disinfectant,” she said. “When pruning many roses at once, it is necessary to keep any disease from spreading from one rose to another.

“I start my pruning with sharp, clean pruning shears,” she continued. “After I finish pruning the first rose, I spray the pruning shears, loppers, or hand saw with Lysol disinfectant spray, or better yet, Clippercide, or similar disinfectant used by professional barbers and hairstylists to disinfect and lubricate their clippers. Clippercide has the added benefit of lubricating and preventing rust on your tools.”

Can cuttings be turned into new plants? It depends, said Kathryn Mackenzie, who has propagated hundreds of bushes for the cemetery’s annual plant sale.

Rose varieties released in the last 20 years are still under patent, which means their original hybridizer has exclusive rights to their propagation. But cuttings from older varieties may be propagated and grown on their own roots.

January cuttings can be problematic, she noted. Instead, wait until after the first flush of spring bloom.

“For those who want to try propagating a rose that is no longer under patent protection, I have found that the best time to take cuttings in the Sacramento area is right after the spring bloom,” she said. “Soft wood cuttings do the best for me at this time of year in a greenhouse or a small terrarium and, by the time winter comes, the root structure is big enough to make it through winter and into the spring in one-gallon pots.”

The important thing is to get started, Villegas said. Prune dormant roses before mid-February when warmer days prompt rapid new growth.

“And remember to wear long sleeves, long pants,” he said. “When you’re pruning roses, you’re going to get poked. So, wear something you don’t mind ripping.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Winter rose care workshop

Where: Maidu Community Center, 1550 Maidu Drive, Roseville

When: 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13

Admission: Free

Details: www.sactorose.org

Highlights: This comprehensive workshop offers expert advice for both novices and longtime rose growers.

Pruning seminar

Where: Woodland Public Library, 250 First St., Woodland

When: 9:30-11:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 13

Admission: Free

Details: www.woodlandlibraryroseclub.com

Highlights: This indoor-outdoor workshop features an educational seminar inside the library’s Leake Room and hands-on demonstrations in the library’s rose garden. The club’s rosarians will offer advice. A Yolo County master gardener will answer questions on winter garden care. Berkeley’s Hida Tool will offer pruning shears and other tools for sale.

Pruning cemetery garden

Where: Historic City Cemetery, 1000 Broadway, Sacramento

When: 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13

Admission: $10 donation

Details: www.cemeteryrose.org

Highlights: World renowned rose expert Stephen Scanniello demonstrates how to care for large climbers and Old Garden Roses while sharing stories of preservation and restoration.