How to Groom Cut Roses for Exhibition 
at the Rose Shows

By Brian Donn

You have all heard the phrase, "Put your best face forward." When it comes to entering roses at rose shows, careful grooming of the rose bloom can mean the difference between winning a trophy versus only getting a ribbon. Of course, the rose specimens must be of good (but not necessarily fantastic) quality, so you must have a suitable growing regimen and a way of getting them safely to the show. Then, by "putting their best face forward," you can get your roses up there among the crystal and silver, and enjoy being congratulated for doing so well.

By now you have guessed that what I'm really talking about is grooming and staging your rose entries to improve your chances of winning at the rose show. I will deal mainly with hybrid tea roses, but you can apply these suggestions to any other types that have hybrid tea form, and some of the leaf-grooming and removing damaged petals would even apply to Old Garden Roses.

Before you can tackle this area intelligently, you have to know what the rose judges are looking for. Three ways come to mind right away. First, get a copy of the ARS Guidelines for Judging Roses, which is a reference booklet for horticultural rose judges, and get a clear picture of the criteria the judges will be looking for. Second, really look at the rose entries on the trophy table, and ask yourself what made each entry a winner. Despite occasional instances of questionable rose judging, and a great deal of griping from rose exhibitors who have never tried to judge, the judging overall is competent and the winners are deserving. Third, many rose judges will be pleased to share with you their thoughts about why a winning entry was chosen (they may not have actually judged that class). First and foremost you must realize that the rose judges will be seeing hundreds of entries, and first impressions can make a difference. Your rose entry must say, "Hey, look at me."

Unless you have a large rose garden and work very hard at growing your roses, and grow only the top exhibition varieties (I fail on all three counts), it is rare that you will have those "armloads of long-stemmed beauties" promised by the rose catalogs. That's where grooming comes in. You have a good idea what a winning entry should look like, and you have a fair number of well-grown roses with little flaws here and there. Now you must clean, adjust and generally tweak your roses to knock the socks (or pantyhose) off the judges.

Okay, let's get started. The rose bloom should have good color and substance, that is clean, fresh and firm, not faded, spotted or floppy. The form should show a circular outline when viewed from above, and the petals should be symmetrically arranged, tending toward a high pointed center. The bloom should be one-half to two-thirds open. The stem should be long enough that about 12 to 15 inches shows above the lip of the vase. Larger rose blooms require a longer stem. The stem should stand straight in the vase. If the show schedule allows for it, wedging material can be used. The foliage should look healthy and in proportion to the stem and bloom.

You should have a grooming kit with various tools to groom your roses. With soft, artist-type brushes, sweep any dust or debris off the rose petals. With a damp cloth or sponge, wipe off the leaves. Check very carefully for side-growth and cut it out with a small craft knife. Now really take a critical look at the rose bloom. If the center is split, confused, or about to split, don't waste any time on it. If it threatens to open too far too soon, skip it. If it is a bit too closed, ease the outer petals away from the center with fingers, brushes or Q-tips, trying for a nice circular outline. You may then need to bring some of the inner petals outward so you don't wind up with a cup-and-saucer effect.

The rose petals should spiral out from the center symmetrically so the center is smack in the middle, not off to one side. You can tuck Q-tips between the petals to hold them where you want them. Once you have done this to your best rose specimens, you can line them up and start making some decisions about which classes to enter. For instance, if you have several of one rose variety, select the best one for Queen, and perhaps you can come up with three of a kind or six of a kind, or combine different rose varieties for a challenge entry. Don't overlook full-blown, most fragrant or floating bowl. English Box is great if you have good blooms on poor stems or with damaged foliage.

At this point your rose specimens are clean, open enough but not too much. Now what? Are the outermost (guard) petals crinkled, ruffled or otherwise disfigured? You will have to decide whether to leave them as is, trim any irregular edges or remove them completely. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. You want the rose bloom to look as perfect as possible, but it should not be immediately obvious that the bloom has been tampered with. If the first thing you notice about a man is that he's wearing a hairpiece, your first impression might be less than favorable. Experience is the only teacher with the guard-petal dilemma, and if you have tried your hand at grooming roses, you already know that some varieties are much more receptive to your efforts than others, not to mention that some rose varieties don't hold up in the refrigerator and must be cut the evening before the rose show, or they lose their freshness. Also, since some roses open much more quickly than others, they must be cut tighter in order to be at the most perfect stage at the time of judging.

Now on to the leaves. Damaged tips or margins can be trimmed. There is a wonderful kind of scissors available at some craft stores, particularly those specializing in stamp-making. The scissors have serrated blades called "deckle-edge" which simulate the toothed margin of rose leaves. If you trim with them and preserve the overall shape of the leaf, it is just about undetectable. If you have any disproportionately large rose leaves or leaflets, these can be trimmed to a more ideal size and shape with your magic shears. Occasionally, you may have to snip off an entire damaged leaflet.

Moving to multiple rose specimen entries, e.g., 3s and 6s and challenge classes, the main thing is that your entry must be just that. Your roses must look like AN ENTRY, not three or more roses flopping in every direction. The blooms should be closely grouped but not touching or overlapping. They must look like they belong together. This is what I mean by "staging." And when you combine staging and grooming you have "presentation." This is what catches the judge's eye; the first impression; the one rose or entry of several roses that jumps off the table and refuses to be ignored.

Reprinted from Fall 1997 Rose Exhibitors' Forum, Kitty Belendez, Editor.

The late Brian Donn was an outstanding rose exhibitor who has won many Queens and District trophies. He was a master at grooming roses and coached many novices. Brian was also a talented watercolorist and art teacher. Brian said, "I had no intention of growing roses when I moved into my small 1930s-style house and lot, but my love of roses got in the way, and little by little the trees, shrubs and lawns were torn out, and roses took over. Now visitors are amazed that I have crammed so many rose bushes into such a tiny place and even win a fair share of awards. My garden was selected for the 1994 ARS Convention bus tour to show what could be done in a small space."



© Copyright Briann Donn. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published in 1997 "Rose Exhibitors Forum", Kitty Belendez, Editor.

Photos © Copyright by Kitty Belendez

For questions about Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, contact:
Kitty Belendez

Updated January 4, 2016
'Louise Estes' Hybrid Tea Rose
'Moonstone' Hybrid Tea Rose
'Andrea Stelzer' Hybrid Tea Rose