Protecting roses in winter

Protecting roses in winter

One of the last tasks of the garden season is to protect roses for winter. And by last tasks, I mean you need to wait to do this until winter sets in–the ground is frozen (or in the process of freezing) and no more balmy days are forecast. I won’t lie, this can be a cold job for the gardener. But there’s a reason you need to do this so late.

If you “winterize” your roses too early they’re be all snuggled up when a late fall warm spell hits.The warm weather, amplified by the winter protection you put on your roses, will prompt the roses to put energy into sprouting new growth. As soon as real winter hits and the temperature plummets all of that new growth will freeze and die.

Some hardy roses, such as the shrub roses developed at the Morden Research Station in Manitoba, are bred to not need any winter protection. There are some beautiful roses that in that series, so if you don’t want to go through the process I’m about to explain, you should consider planting that type.

But if you succumb to the siren call of the less hardy roses, which would include most hybrid tea roses (i.e. the kind that look like what you’dy buy at the florist) and, my personal weakness, English roses, and you live in most parts of Canada or the northern U.S., you need to protect your rose bushes for the winter in order to prevent them from dying off. If you live in an area that gets a lot of snow (that stays all winter) your roses actually have a better chance of surviving than if you live in an area with relatively milder winters and less snow, because snow is an insulator. In Toronto, I need to protect my roses.

Some people winterize their roses by just mounding soil around and over them. This works to a certain extent, but a better way is to use what are called rose cones or rose huts:

Variety of rose cones

They come in a variety of sizes and are made of styrofoam or other materials. The photo above shows a few from my collection. This is what they look like when you first find them in the store:

rose cones aka rose huts on a store shelf in Toronto

I understand that manufacturers intend for you to just plop the rose cone over top of your rose bush, push some stakes through the holes to anchor it, and call it a day. This is likely better than not using any form of protection. But, I’m going to show you in a minute that can do a much better job of insulating the rose bush if you cut the top off the rose cone before you use it. I use my reciprocating saw to cut the top off, but you could also use a box cutter.

Before I can put the cone on the plant I prune my rose bush back to a size that will fit into the cone. In the spring, I’ll be cutting back most stems that are the thickness of a pencil (or thinner) to less than 12″ high, so it’s ok to cut the plant back a bit now to make it easier to manage.

Rose bush ready to go into rose cone

The roses in my garden still had lots of green leaves on them when I took these photos. But, it was the right time to do this job as our first major snowstorm of the season was expected to begin in a few hours and the forecast was for cold weather for the foreseeable future.

Once the rose was a manageable size, I slipped the rose cone over top of the plant.

Rose bush in empty rose cone

 

Next, I wanted to fill the cone with soil. I keep the soil I’ve emptied out of my planters handy for this purpose, and, because I have quite a few roses, I also buy some bags of soil, compost, or composted manure.

Rose bush in rose cone and trug full of soil

As I mentioned, you shouldn’t do this task until it’s really cold out and the ground is freezing. Unless you have a heated storage area that likely means that the soil you want to fill your rose cones with is going to be frozen pretty solid. I thaw mine by sitting it on the mat just inside my front door overnight or, if I’m in more of a hurry, dragging it into my utility room beside my boiler and hot water heater for a few hours…and then dragging it back up the stairs and out to the garden right when I’m ready to use it.

I never said growing roses was glamorous.

Rose bush in rose cone with soil to insulate

Once I have my soil thawed I pour it into the cone. When my garden mentor first taught me how to do this I asked him “How much of the rose do I need to cover with soil?” His answer was “How much of the rose do you want to survive?”

Right.

So I fill my rose cones as close to the top as I can. Which means I fill all of them with a few inches of soil, and then go back and top them all up until I’ve run out of thawed soil.

Having the cone as a support allows you to pile the soil much further up the plant than if you were to just pile soil on the rose bush without any cone. That’s why I was taught that using cones is the best way to winterize roses.

You might be tempted to fill the cone with leaves or straw or something lighter than soil. This would, in theory, insulate your rose bush. But if you do you run the risk of mice and other small critters crawling in there to stay warm and cozy, and snacking on your rose canes (aka stems). You don’t want to find out  in the spring that they’ve been chewed off at ground level; use soil, composted manure, or compost.

One more tip: if your rose bushes are quite “bushy” it’s best to tie some string around the plant to rein it in before you try to slide a rose cone over it. Getting the string around can be an awkward process but it really does help. Wear heavy gloves and recruit a helper if you can.

Rosebush tied with string

 

So what is the reward for doing all this work to winterize your roses?

Well, just look:

Rosa eglantyne (David Austin)

For me, that makes it all worthwhile.

 

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