The Rookie Rosarian
A Dietary Roadmap for Roses
By Robert B. Martin, Jr.
Master Rosarian

In my first installment of The Rookie Rosarian, published in The Pasadena Rose, I stated my intention in this series to provide instruction that is applicable to Pasadena in particular and Southern California in general. I also stated that my plan was to give answers and not so many explanations of the reasons behind them.  I remind the reader of these intentions because this month I set forth a dietary road map for feeding your roses for the entire year. This road map is specific for our locality; it is also one to which I could devote a great deal of explanation of why it works. But I won't - you're just going to have to trust that it will. The explanations can wait until another day.

Keeping the Faith

Roses reward you in proportion to your effort. Nowhere is this principal more important than in feeding roses. Roses are heavy feeders and their need for nutrients is continuous. The key to any successful feeding program is regularity. Roses do not care how good your excuse is for passing up a feeding; they simply respond accordingly. Of course with roses even modest efforts produce beautiful results; however faithful efforts produce spectacular results. So you do not have to follow this dietary road map exactly. But the more you stay on the path the better your results will be. 

In this regard I note that I am a rose exhibitor and many rosarians think there is a difference between an exhibitor's feeding schedule and the feeding schedule a rookie or just casual rosarian might adopt. But the roses don't know whether you are feeding them to produce exhibition blooms, they just know that the nutrients are there. The road map I set forth in this article is the same basic schedule I intend to follow this year. You should follow it too if you want the very best rose blooms without regard to whether you intend to show them, to cut them for the house, or just simply to enjoy them in the garden.

Mixing and Measuring

Rose fertilizers contain a given quantity of nutrients and it is important to measure how much is applied. This is not to suggest that this is a chemistry project and that exactness is necessary. But wild guesses as to how much is being applied will not do. So if you have not already done so get yourself a set of kitchen measuring cups and spoons to devote to your roses and use them.

Soluble fertilizers are mixed with water usually at a rate of one Tablespoon per gallon. You should therefore have some means of measuring your applications. I have for years mixed my fertilizers in a 32 gallon trash can of water and applied them to the bushes by hand with one gallon pitchers. This has the virtue of delivering exact quantities but is time consuming. You could also use a hose end applicator for this purpose; some come with a dial and others are set up to simply mix about one Tablespoon of dry soluble fertilizer with a gallon of water. Other rosarians mix their solutions and use a siphon with Hyponex device for application with a hose. Select a method you are comfortable with given the number of roses you have to feed.

Dry rose fertilizers can be scooped out of the package with the appropriate measuring cup and slung around the base of the rose. I like to empty the bag in my wheelbarrow which makes it easier to push around the garden. It is also a good idea to measure how much dry fertilizer you can hold in your hand. My hand holds exactly 1/4th a cup and using this fact I can feed my roses by tossing the appropriate number of handfuls around each rose bush.

It is generally advised that the fertilizers be applied around the "drip line: of the rose, i.e. the natural circle where water would drip off the leaves. This is good knowledge but is not really that important. I just throw dry fertilizers around the rose and dump the soluble fertilizers directly on it. Close is good enough for this purpose.

The rates I recommend are for a full size rose whether Hybrid Tea, Grandiflora, Floribunda, Shrub or OGR. Miniature roses should be fed from 1/3 to 1/2 as much depending on their size; the larger amount applies to a well grown miniature in the ground. Climbers and very large shrubs should be fed twice as much.

Bloom Cycles of Roses

Roses bloom in cycles and in Southern California we can expect six bloom cycles in the year. There are two in the spring, two in the summer, one in the fall, and one that drifts into the beginning of winter. The first spring bloom, which is always the very best, generally occurs about the middle of April. The weather is a factor in this and may delay or speed up the cycle by a week or so. There are also regional differences depending on whether your climate is coastal or inland. For our purposes we will assume that the first bloom will occur in Mid-April. Thereafter the late spring bloom, which is also very good, will occur in the early part of June. The two summer cycles occur late in July and August. You should then plan to lightly prune your roses on or about Labor Day for the excellent fall bloom that occurs in the middle of October. The roses will then recycle as I have said for a last bloom but with the advent of the rains and the cold it is generally ragged.

It should be added that these dates are rough approximations. One of the very important skills acquired in exhibiting roses is to learn exactly how the roses in your micro-climate perform and to time the blooms for important shows. This is also helpful information if you simply want to time blooms for a special occasion. So pay attention to how your roses perform and even take notes if you are so inclined as to when they bloom. This will help you to refine your schedule in years to come.

The "Organic Base" and "Soluble Fertilizer"

The feeding program I recommend is based on a healthy application of organic fertilizers supplemented as necessary by an inorganic soluble fertilizer. I refer to the organic application as the "Organic Base". For me this is Gro-Power at the rate of 1/4 cup per rose. If you prefer, or are unable to find Gro-Power, you could substitute 1/4 cup of cottonseed meal, 2 Tbsp of fish meal, 1 1/2 cups of chicken manure, or 2 cups of well rotted steer manure.

In addition to the Organic Base I use fish emulsion. There are several brands of fish emulsion available usually with a formulation of 5-1-1. I use the Alaska brand. It is also my practice to add SuperThrive to my fish emulsion at the rate of 1 Tbsp per 32 gallon trash can; this is optional. I think it helps but hard evidence is hard to come by.

There are many choices for an inorganic soluble fertilzer. The most common available in Southern California are Miracle-Gro 15-30-15, Miracle-Gro for Roses 18-24-16, Peters 20-20-20, RA-Pid-Gro 23-19-17 and Verdisol 20-20-20. You will note that the nitrogen content (the first number of the three) is roughly the same for all three. There are also many other similar products which contain nitriogen at a rate of between 15% and 23%. Buy the one that is the cheapest. For simplicity I will assume that they are all the same and will refer to them generically as you "Soluble Fertilizer". 

The First Bloom Cycle

Opening day for the feeding schedule is March 1. But as I am looking at the schedule for the publication of this newsletter I see that this date will have passed by the time you are reading this. Do not be concerned; apply the recommended March 1 feeding of your Organic Base as soon as possible and then just pick up the schedule the following week as it reads.

On March 1 you should lay down the "Organic Base" on your roses. 

On March 8 apply your Soluble Fertilizer at a rate of 1 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant.

On March 15 feed fish emulsion at the rate of 2 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant. 

On March 22 apply your Soluble Fertilizer at a rate of 1 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant.

On March 29 apply to each plant 1/4 cup of Epsom Salts and some chelated iron at the rate recommended on the package.

For the weeks of April 5, 12, 19 and 26 you have a choice. Apply your Soluble Fertilizer at a rate of 1 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per rose bush each week or simply feed every other week at the full strength of 1 Tbsp per gallon. I like to feed weekly and to alternate the 1/2 strength Soluble Fertilizer with full strength fish emulsion.

The Second Bloom Cycle

The second bloom cycle feeding program is nearly identical to the first. The Organic Base can be applied on either April 26 or May 3. In addition you return to the feeding of your Soluble Fertilizer as follows:

On May 3 apply your Soluble Fertilizer at a rate of 1 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant.

On May 10 feed fish emulsion at the rate of 2 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant. 

On May 17 apply your Soluble Fertilizer at a rate of 1 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant.

On May 24 apply to each plant 1/4 cup of Epsom Salts and some chelated iron at the rate recommended on the package.

For the weeks of May 31, and June 7, 14 and 21 you again have a choice. Apply your Soluble Fertilizer at a rate of 1 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per rose bush each week or simply feed every other week at the full strength of 1 Tbsp per gallon. I plan to feed weekly and to alternate the 1/2 strength Soluble Fertilizer with full strength fish emulsion.

Summertime

On June 28 apply your Organic Base for the Summer. Repeat the Organic base on August 2. These dates are not hard and fast and you can adjust them to your summer vacation schedule. The idea is to apply the Organic Base once a month for July and August. Water is the most important nutrient for the summer time so be generous. 

The Fall Bloom Cycle

The fall bloom cycle feeding program is nearly identical to that of the first two. The Organic Base can be applied on either August 31 or September 6. In addition you return to the feeding of your Soluble Fertilizer as follows:

On September 13 apply your Soluble Fertilizer at a rate of 1 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant.

On September 20 feed fish emulsion at the rate of 2 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant.

On September 27 apply your Soluble Fertilizer at a rate of 1 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant.

On October 4 apply to each plant 1/4 cup of Epsom Salts and some chelated iron at the rate recommended on the package.

For the weeks of October 11 and 18 you again have a choice. Apply your Soluble Fertilizer at a rate of 1 Tbsp per gallon; one gallon per plant each week or simply feed one of the weeks at the full strength of 1 Tbsp per gallon. I plan to feed the 1/2 strength Soluble Fertilizer on October 11 and full strength fish emulsion on October 18.

All Done

Your work is done. You do not feed your roses after October 18. The roses will continue to bloom and the remaining fertilizer in the soil will carry them through the balance of the fall bloom and the winter bloom. You will have had the most beautiful blooms you can imagine and your roses will look better than they have ever looked before. In this way they will have thanked you. And you will know the truth that roses do reward you in proportion to your effort.

Have a great trip.

© Copyright Robert B. Martin, Jr.. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published in "Rose Ecstasy," bulletin of Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, Kitty Belendez, Editor.

Photos © Copyright by Kitty Belendez

For questions about Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, contact:
Kitty Belendez
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Updated January 3, 2016

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