By Pat Hamilton
The New Year arrived with new hope for a deer free garden. Gaird, David and Jake(our grandson from Fortuna) were working on a seven foot high deer fence. This turn of events instilled excitement about the rose garden, and hope for a vegetable garden once again. My brain began to go into overdrive mode with plans for changes that I want to make, however they all have to be cleared by Gaird as my pardner in “Rosaholicism” we need to be on the same page so I know not all of my plans will ever pass muster, so to speak. Knowing that the first thing that needs to be done is to get the roses pruned I volunteered to do it while the boys worked on the fence. They have about three hundred fifty feet of the fence done, and five of the six gates. I have close to two hundred roses pruned out of seven hundred twelve, but they are big roses not the minis. They are well ahead of me as they only have about two hundred feet of fence left to run, (we are only inclosing the area around the house. There is going to be a whole herd of deer unhappy about this turn of events as we also fenced in most of the orchard, leaving only three apple trees out that are on the slope for the deer.
We have started to clear out one of the old garden rose beds to make me a kitchen garden, it had the bad luck to be just out my kitchen door. This should make me an ideal garden spot as we can get to it with the pickup and haul some horse manure in to refresh the ground. I can’t wait, however there are a number of roses that need moving somewhere else, maybe along the new deer fence? As you can see there is a good reason why Gaird will veto some of my plans~ lack of time and manpower.
As I was saying I have new hope for a wonderful garden, but it takes more than hope to grow great roses. I will start by saying we have all heard a lot about how to grow the beautiful perfect rose. Those of you who have read my articles in the past will think I sound like a broken record with my same old advice only updated by my own experiences. If you are like us you are learning to be realistic and grow the ones that do well here on the coast. Having said that, we still find the conditions here perfect for growing some of the best roses imaginable. Our climate is comparable to a green house, a little wetter but not quite as warm.
Remember roses grow from the ground up! If you have healthy soil you have half the battle won. The first thing you need to do is get to know your soil. Dig a few holes around the area in question to check if the soil is clay or sandy, also see if there is any organic matter in the dirt. You should find earthworms if it is reasonably damp. Check the color and the fragrance of the soil. See if the hole holds water or drains out rapidly. Take a handful and squeeze it into a ball. Lay it down and look at it. Sandy soil falls right apart, clay soil stays in a tight ball, silty soil feels greasy. What you want is a sandy loam, it will hold its shape but crumble under a little poking with the finger.
Armed with this information, you can start correcting any shortfalls. If it is possible for you to have a soil test run, it can save you a lot of guess work. You can buy a medium range soil test kit and run your own tests. You probably will show a deficiency in nitrogen due to the amount of rain we receive over the winter.
Your soil texture is important to the plants as it affects the roots ability to absorb oxygen and water. Sandy soil drains water too fast leaching out nutrients and drying out. Clay soil has trouble taking in water, then becomes saturated and will not release it, making it hard for the plants to receive oxygen. What you need is a mixture of sand, clay and humus. This should be roughly one third each, with the sand being slightly larger. ( I have read many soil mixture recommendations and this is about average.)
The next thing you should check about your soil is the pH ( acidity and alkalinity).The pH of your soil is the first thing that you should test if your roses are not thriving. Roses like a soil that is slightly acid,(between 6.0 and 6.8). When the soil is too acid the rose plants have a problem accessing the nutrients that they need, especially nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. If the soil is not acid enough the roses can suffer because they can not access the iron in the soil. Our soil here on the northcoast tends to be acidic due to the heavy amounts of rainfall that we receive. Compost is good for correcting both clay and sandy soils. We are trying for a rich loam.
Chemical fertilizers are mostly acid and they do nothing to improve your soil, however they do have the nutrients that the roses need providing the plants can access it and the soil is loose enough to be aerated .
Organic fertilizers improve the tilth of the soil as it feeds the microbes. Roses like loose aerated soil to grow well. Earthworms keep soil loose and improve the content as they digest organic matter and transport it down to the root area as worm castings. If you already have a large rose garden and you didn’t improve the organic content of the soil, and replanting the whole thing is out of the question, your best avenue to improve your soil is to add a nutrient rich mulch. The worms and microbes will slowly but surely do the work for you. Good rich horse manure from the stables where they have wood shavings mixed in can’t be beat. Just let the pile sit for a few months to kill all the weed seeds first, if possible. However, we have used it straight from the stables without any bad effects. Layer a three or four inch blanket over the soil around your bushes. We don’t touch the canes but come in pretty close.
If you can’t get horse manure, make your own mulch by buying the cheapest redwood compost or soil builder. Open the bag into your wheelbarrow and start adding good nutrients to that. Always add nitrogen to the mulch so it will break down over the year and not rob it from your ground. This can be from a cup of chemical fertilizer like (21-0-0), or a quart of Fish meal, blood meal, and cottonseed meal as all are rich in nitrogen. Steer manure and chicken manure are often on good sales. You will need to add more manure if you choose to take that approach.
Your roses like the soil to be a little acid about 6.8 is ideal, however 6.0 to 7.0 is good. pH is measured on a scale of 0 to 14, with the value of 7 as neutral. If the pH of the soil is too acid or alkaline the plant cannot access the nutrients that are present, and will not thrive as the nutrients become locked up. So checking your soil pH is very necessary before you start making any changes. The addition of organic material corrects both types of soils, it causes low pH’s to rise and high pH’ to lower, brings them both closer to neutral. If you have a real problem you can also use lime to raise the pH of acid soil, and sulfur to lower the pH of alkaline soil. Be very careful and research your needs before making any drastic changes.
Gardening consists of a lot of different experiences, one of the main things you learn from any type of gardening is the importance of good rich healthy soil. You can tell if your soil is healthy by picking up a hand full and giving it the sniff test, it should smell like good clean dirt a little sweet. The soil should crumble in you fingers easily and have a good dark brown to black color. Check when the soil is damp but not soaking wet, dig a hole about a foot deep. Look at the soil you take out, are there plenty of worms? Healthy soil will contain angle worms, hopefully both the native red worms and nightcrawlers.
You might wonder why I am so enamored with earth worms? These are the little soil engineers that keep our soil loose and aerated. This aids in the soil’s ability to absorb water and the loose soil aids in root growth. The night crawlers are really good at breaking down the mulch as they digest it and distribute the worm castings at root level and thus making the nutrients available to the plant. It has been demonstrated that earthworm castings contain a much higher content of available nitrate, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and calcium than regular soil. You do not need to buy worm castings you only need to make your soil attractive to worms with the addition of organic material and mulches and they will come.
When the days start to grow longer in the spring and the soil starts to warm up, your roses will get the message to wake up and start growing. Roses have big appetites and they need lots of food and water once the soil is warm enough to support good root growth. The organisms in the soil which convert the nutrients into forms that are available to the plant for good growth need fed also. The following recipe is the one that I use. It is really worth the effort and you will see results within a week to ten days. This works through out the growing year as a tonic for ailing plants.
Alfalfa Tea; Brew up a batch in a 32 gallon trash can with a tight fitting lid. This is a tonic for your roses, while the tea doesn’t replace a good feeding program it surely augments the fertilizer that you choose to use.
Take your clean trash can, ( make sure to set it where you can leave it for a while and it will not be in your way, as it will be heavy and hard to move) measure out three quarts of alfalfa meal/pellets into the bottom of the can, add clean water till the can is full. Fit the lid on the can and let it set for a week to ten days till it starts to ferment. When you are ready to use the tea, add two cups Epson salts, and two cups fish emulsion. Take a long stick and stir this up good until the Epson salts are dissolved in good. Each rose bush should get a gallon of this mixture, on mini roses put on a half gallon if they are in the ground and if they are potted put on enough to make the pot start leaking out the bottom.
Remember you still need to feed your roses their spring fertilizer preferably organic material but that is your choice. I have included my receipt for feeding which I like the best but it is labor intensive. It is very important to mix it up well! Here is a good recipe that has worked well for us. This will feed two rose bushes so divide it evenly when it is mixed.
2 cup alfalfa meal or pellets
1 cup fish meal
1 cup cottonseed meal
1 cup Epsom salts
½ cup kelp meal
½ cup chelated iron
½ cup bone meal
½ cup green sand
½ cup of 12-12-12 (this is immediately available to the plants)
I feel like a mad scientist when out in the shop working on my fertilizer mixture. Just be sure if you want to create your own mixture to incorporate whatever nutrients your soil is short of. Nitrogen is almost always in short supply, so look for a good source at a reasonable price.
Kelp meal will supply your micro-nutrients so I would recommend using it in what ever mixture you make. You will also need alfalfa pellets (or meal) and Epsom Salts.
Have fun growing roses, that is why we garden!!!