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 Low Desert Rose Gardening Basics… Feeding, Watering & Mulching

This page was last updated on: April 4, 2009

Low Desert Rose Gardening Basics… Feeding, Watering & Mulching
By Sharon Radice Moore
Member, Desert Rose Society and American Rose Society

There are few topics about roses on which there are more differing points of view than feeding and watering. While growing roses in our low desert climate narrows the field of controversy some, still many a lively conversation will follow the reading of this article. What we will attempt here is to give you the basics of what you need to do in the way of feeding, watering and mulching your roses to get a good result here in the Coachella Valley.

Feeding: Roses are relatively “heavy feeders” and need a regular diet of fertilizer balanced for rose horticulture. The primary nutrients, or NPK, are nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Most formulas also contain secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium, sulfur) and micronutrients (iron, zinc, manganese, copper, boron, and molybdenum). By law, every fertilizer must have its numerical N-P-K ratio listed on its packaging. This ratio will tell you what you can expect from its formula. You will usually see this expressed as something like 12-12-12 or 6-12-6 or 16-4-2. These numbers represent what percentage of the content of the package is of each nutrient.  A 12-12-12 fertilizer is twice as strong as a 6-6-6 fertilizer. These percentages can be important when figuring how much fertilizer you are getting for your dollar. It will take 2 pounds of 6-6-6 to do the job of one pound of 12-12-12.

N-Nitrogen promotes leaf growth and green foliage. P-Phosphorous encourages root growth and flowering. K-Potassium fosters overall plant health and hardiness to heat, drought and cold. In addition, it acts as a catalyst for nitrogen and phosphorus. In complete fertilizers you will also find the secondary nutrients and  micronutrients. That is why a complete fertilizer is more expensive than a non-complete fertilizer.  The additional nutrients carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are supplied from the atmosphere.

These nutrients are available in both organic (from plant and animal sources) and inorganic forms. Inorganic or synthetic (chemical) fertilizers work quickly. Organic fertilizers work more slowly but benefit the soil as well as the plant. In addition, organic nutrients will continue to benefit the plant long after the inorganic nutrients are exhausted. The choice is yours; however, the current thinking is that both can work together giving you rapid results while building for the future.

Basic Feeding Schedule: Apply commercial fertilizers as directed on the package. The frequency of feeding can vary from brand to brand depending on the concentration of the nutrients. Established roses are usually fed every four weeks with granular fertilizers. If you choose to use a liquid fertilizer you will need to feed about every two weeks. A water soluble fertilizer  will wash down past the root zone faster than a granular because the granular has to dissolve first. A couple of things to always remember: When the granular fertilizer manufacturer says to water before and after fertilizing to prevent fertilizer burn they mean it. When they tell you to rake your fertilizer into the top inch or so of soil they mean it because the potassium portion of the fertilizer has to be in, not on, the soil to be available to the rose. Start feeding after the spring pruning when the plants have one inch of new growth. Continue feeding following package directions  until the weather gets hot, about mid June. Traditional practice was to then stop feeding until the temperatures drop in September and then resume feeding after the fall cut back, continuing until about mid-November. Then feeding stopped while the plants rested until the after-pruning application. However, a number of rose growers have adopted the practice of continuing to feed at half the normal concentration, or even less, during the hot summer months.  Apply fertilizers around the drip-line (outer perimeter) of the plant. The same general timing for when to feed applies to organic fertilizers but check the individual product package for the frequency of feeding.  No discussion of feeding roses would be complete without considering the organic content of your soil and its effect on plant nourishment. Our desert soil is virtually devoid of organic matter and the best way to get it into the soil is when you plant. Organic mulches and compost when applied to the soil surface gradually decompose and add their organic content to your soil.  Composted yard waste, forest humus, peat moss, leaf mold and manures will all become part of the organic makeup of your soil. Soils high in organic matter convert nutrients more easily making them readily available to the plant.  It’s a good idea to perform a soil test before amending your soil at the time of planting and periodically thereafter to determine what is needed in terms of soil amendments.  Simple soil testing kits may be purchased at local garden centers or more sophisticated tests may be found via the internet and require soil samples to be sent out for laboratory testing.

Watering: Water is the ultimate fertilizer. It moves nutrients from the soil into the plant. To determine how much water your roses need, consider the density of organic matter in your soil and your garden’s microclimate.  The more organic matter in your soil, the more moisture it retains and the less time it takes water to reach the plant roots. Mulch on the surface also helps retain moisture. Keep in mind that roses need adequate water but do not like to their feet wet. Here in our valley the soil is porous and water goes rather rapidly down through it. Many water twice a day, particularly during the hotter months — once in the early morning and once in the afternoon, early enough that the plants can dry off before night.  Never allow the soil to become dry further down than an inch or two.

Irrigation choices include drip systems, underground sprinklers, and hand watering. Drip, or low-volume, irrigation is an efficient method that delivers water where intended with little runoff or evaporation. Underground watering systems with conventional above-ground spray heads direct water up onto the foliage, which is effective in removing spider mites that live on the underside of the leaves as well as creating some welcome humidity and cooling in our hot, dry climate. The downside of top watering is that the minerals in our water leave mineral deposit on the foliage.  A mid-way solution is top watering with a sprinkler that sprays out rather than up. It  only gets water on the lower portion of the plant and not on the flowers and foliage near the flowers.

Hand watering, while often enjoyable, is simply unrealistic in our climate. The best way to water roses in containers is with a drip system. At the end of each small line you can install a small sprinkler on a stake in each pot. The little sprinklers spray out eight little streams of water and each sprinkler is adjustable as to amount of flow. These little sprinklers are about a dollar each. The drip system and the yard sprinklers can be put on timers and the roses are all watered automatically. Watering duration varies with the season and temperatures. Typically, when the temperatures are above 85 degrees and the nights are warm, set your timers to water twice a day from six to eight minutes. When the temperatures go below 85 degrees and the nights are cool, set your timers for five minutes twice a day. These times are for an average amount of water delivery and if your sprinklers give a slower or faster delivery of water you should adjust these times accordingly.

Mulching: Mulch is organic matter that promotes moisture retention, suppresses weed growth, and cools the soil when spread under each bush. Mulches can be anything from a natural source that does not contain weed seeds and is not too fresh. Common types of mulches include shredded bark, wood chips, sawdust, straw, alfalfa hay, cocoa bean hulls, pine needles composted leaves, peat moss, and leaf mold. Apply the mulch to the surface of the entire rose planting bed. Use mulch to a depth between two  and four inches. Mulch is important in this hot climate because it conserves water by slowing evaporation, it helps keep the root zone cooler, it helps prevent weeds and it looks good..

These are the basics of watering, feeding and mulching. As you progress through growing roses you will become more sophisticated in your practices, but this will get you going. All things in rose care can be as easy as this or as complicated as you wish to make it.

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