Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Roses prove toughness during drought

Lance Walheim has heard plenty of head-scratching questions about roses. He’s not surprised. After all, he wrote the best-selling guide book “Roses for Dummies.”

“The No. 1 mistake people make with roses is improper watering,” said Walheim, author of more than 30 gardening books. “I keep running into people who water every day, or their roses are watered from lawn sprinklers. It’s time to change.”

A lot has changed in the rose world since the second edition of his book was published in 2000. Hundreds of varieties have been introduced, including a whole category of easy-care roses that was practically unknown when “Roses for Dummies” debuted in 1997.

“Walk into any (home improvement center) and you’ll find lots of Earth-Kind, Knockout or other easy-care roses,” he said. “It’s getting hard to find hybrid teas.”

It’s not just the available varieties that have changed. During the recession, growers and wholesale nurseries underwent major upheaval, forever changing the rose industry landscape.

Walheim, the national gardening expert for Bayer Advanced, makes his home in the heart of California’s rose country where acres and acres of bushes are field grown for nurseries. He lives on a citrus ranch in Exeter near Visalia.

“It seems like all we talk about is water,” he said of the statewide drought. “We’re in a situation where we’re trying to save every drop while also trying to save our plants.”

While he frets over his mandarins and blood oranges, Walheim isn’t too worried about his roses.

“A lot of people don’t realize how tough roses are,” he said. “At most, my roses get watered once a week. A lot of times, they get by with a lot less.”

Older varieties such as Iceberg tend to do the best with less water, he added. The Earth-Kind series of landscape roses do very well with irrigation only twice a month.

Walheim has experimented to find the answer to one basic question: “Do you apply less water at each irrigation or do you stretch the time between watering?” he said. “The interesting thing I’ve noticed is that the roses do better with deep watering. Water less often, but make sure you do it right – get the water down to the roots.

“In a drought situation, roses will get by on deep watering once a month,” Walheim said. “They learn to accept less. They may not flower as much, you might not get as many roses, but you’ll still have roses.”

Roses need water to produce flowers, Walheim noted. “Even the landscape roses; if you want to keep them blooming, you need to keep them hydrated. By cutting back (water), the bloom cycle takes longer – eight weeks instead of six. But you want to slow them down in a drought.”

While Walheim still recommends fertilizing roses (usually every six weeks during bloom season), he suggests cutting back on rose food, too, with longer intervals between feedings.

“You don’t want to prompt too much new growth,” he said. “Cut back on pruning, too; let the hips form in summer. That will slow them down when they need the most water.”

New foliage is particularly susceptible to drought stress, he added. “It transpires (loses water) much quicker.”

Walheim recommends mulch – preferably bark, wood chips or other organic material, not rocks – to help maintain soil moisture and keep rose roots comfortable.

“Stay on the lookout for pests,” he urged. “Drought stresses plants, and that’s when pests attack and when you need to apply pest control. This could be a bad summer for bugs.”

Scouts honor

Speaking of roses, 38 local Boy Scouts made quick work of renovation of a public rose garden in (where else?) Roseville.

Members of the Iron Horse District needed only 20 minutes to rip out 80 old bushes at the Korean War Memorial in Maidu Park. With the help of parents and other volunteers, the Scouts planted 150 replacement bushes in just 90 minutes.

The work was spread over two recent weekends, but should soon be paying off in a beautiful spring bloom, according to Charlotte Owendyk of the Sierra Foothills Rose Society.

She coordinated the effort with Lucy Scot of the Roseville Better Gardens Club.

City staff came through with repairs of sprinklers, bender boards and new mulch. Weeks Roses and Greenheart Farms donated the plants; Kelloggs gave the Scouts fertilizer and soil amendments.

According to Owendyk, the Scouts planted roses that are “proven performers” in the Sacramento area:

Betty Boop, Home Run, Cinco De Mayo, Easy Does It, Hot Cocoa, Julia Child, Day Breaker, Burgundy Iceberg and, appropriately, Memorial Day.

These disease-resistant varieties flower profusely – and can get by with less water, too.

See for yourself; the garden is open daily, dawn to dusk, just east of the Maidu Community Center.