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The Joy of Growing Show Roses

by Suzanne Horn, Master Rosarian, Pacific Rose Society

I have been growing roses for exhibition in Glendale, California since the year 2000 when I was gifted with my first miniature rose on Valentine's Day. Growing roses is not as difficult as people have been led to believe. Our roses will keep growing and blooming even if we neglect them. However, it didn't take me long to realize I wanted to make show business out of growing roses and become an exhibitor. To do that I would need to raise the level of my game and aspire to a level of excellence. With the guidance of some wonderful mentors like Bob Martin and Lynn Snetsinger, along with a willingness to work hard and give it my all, the results of this hobby have brought me a lot of joy, not to mention success. (LEFT: 'Ring of Fire' Vase of 12 - shown by Suzanne Horn at Pacific Rose Society Show 2018, photo by Dona Martin)


I have found the joy is in the process as well as the result. From a horticultural standpoint, growing great exhibition roses is an ongoing educational experience and a journey of discovery. I recall once asking Bob Martin about his feeding program. He replied that he could share with me programs he had used in the past, but that every year he was tweaking and changing his program to try to obtain a better result. Now I understand what he meant, as I do the very same thing. I will never know everything there is to learn about this fascinating hobby, and that is part of the fun in this continuing adventure. I will always be a humble student of the rose and will continue to learn as long as I keep that fact in mind. Once I start thinking I know it all, my learning experience has ended. As a great philosopher once said, "the journey is the destination". For me, the joy is in the learning as much as in the beautiful results.AL


I try to incorporate everything I learn into my program of growing roses. I have found that if I do even one good thing for my roses every day, they will get better and better; and the roses will reward me many times over for any effort put into their well being. I don't have to incorporate everything I learn all at once. However, once I am able to include something new into my program, it becomes part of my habitual routine. Of special note, I have learned that habit is my best friend. Like the Nike commercial says, "Just do it". I never ask myself if I feel like watering or feeding or spraying or disbudding. I just automatically do it because it's part of my program. Just imagine if we asked ourselves every morning we got up, "Do I really want to go to work today?" How many of us would still be gainfully employed?


That being said, let me share with you some of the useful information I have picked up along the way and what I do to obtain optimal results in producing great roses for the shows. I happen to grow all 475 of my show roses in large containers. The hybrid teas and even many minis are grown in 25-gallon containers. However, I find the same basic horticultural practices apply to container grown plants as to roses grown in the ground. Therefore, rather than going into specifics about container gardening, which is another whole article, I will discuss techniques that work with all rose growing applications. 


Needless to say, the first thing we need to do is grow excellent rose bushes. We've all heard that the three most important factors in the real estate market are "location, location and location." Well, it has also been said that the three most important factors in growing great show roses are "water, water and water." Make sure your roses are well hydrated, particularly during the hot summer months. Here in Southern California we are faced with drought conditions, and many areas are rationing water. This of course is another entire article, but in short, I ration everyplace but my roses. I make sure to water deeply at least once a week supplemented by periodic lighter waterings. One deep watering is better than several light waterings, as it encourages roots to grow downward and away from the sun and elements. Early morning watering is best to reduce evaporation, particularly in times of conservation.


One tip I can offer is this: I mix "water holding crystals" (BELOW) in with the soil toward the root zone

in order to maximize the results of my watering. The crystals retain water in the soil longer by storing 200 times their weight in water. Water holding crystals are best used in sandy soil, and not in clay. The substance is also environmentally friendly, which is always a plus.


Next to water in importance is proper nutrition. Like most rose exhibitors, I utilize a combination of organic and chemical fertilizers to achieve optimum health for the most perfect show roses. I spare no expense when it comes to my roses. Two or three times a year I apply an organic, time-release compound containing nutrients that feed the soil. Many rosarians like to create their own organic mix. I prefer to let the experts do the chemistry and apply a commercially available product containing ingredients such as fish meal, kelp meal, alfalfa meal (TOP), and cottonseed meal. My best product recommendations are Dr. Earth Rose & Flower Food, BioStart, Mills Magic Mix, Whitney Farms Organics and E.B. Stone Organics.


Since my roses are in containers, I use a potting soil containing good organic ingredients like

sphagnum peat moss, humus, bat guano, and worm castings. Whether roses are in the ground or in containers, the soil should be amended periodically with good organic matter such as chicken manure, fish meal, and kelp meal. I apply organic matter regularly to feed the soil and help break down fertilizer into a form the roses can use. Organic materials in the soil also help retain water, lower pH in alkaline soil and slowly release their nutrients to the plants. (ABOVE: Mini Royalty photo from Orange County Rose Society Show, all roses but one shown by Suzanne Horn, photo by Leslie Espagnol)


Fish meal is a product I use throughout the year. on my roses It is 100% organic, enriches the soil, and feeds for an extended period of time. Furthermore, it contains primary nutrients and micronutrients; and it is also people and pet safe. Dr. Earth, E.B. Stone and Whitney Farms make excellent fish meal products. I also feed my roses fish emulsion numerous times during the year, and my roses thank me for it. Fish emulsion is natural, organic and is made from condensed fish. It contains low nitrogen with trace elements and can be fed throughout the growing season. Seaweed products are also beneficial and are available as a liquid feed or a foliar feed.

I am also a fan of products containing mycorrhizae, beneficial soil fungi that tend to improve the initial root growth of roses by increasing the uptake of water and fertilizer. I either apply mycorrhizae directly to the root zone when planting or utilize potting soil and organic fertilizers containing mycorrhizae. This is an optional additive, since mycorrhizae is a naturally occurring fungal ingredient in the soil. Roses without it will begin to produce it in the soil. They will catch up with the others treated with mycorrhizae within six months or so. However, I am an "instant gratification" kind of girl and so choose to use it in my program.


During certain times of the year, usually leading up to rose show season, I incorporate well-balanced chemical fertilizers into my organic feeding program. Although not as beneficial for your soil as organics and counterproductive to your mycorrhizae colony, roses do not know the difference between organic and chemical sources. Fertilizers are all chemicals to them, and they do not care about the source of their food. Chemical fertilizers give roses a specific shot in the arm when they need it, such as heavy nitrogen for stem and foliage growth, and a fertilizer higher in phosphate later in the cycle to improve bloom size and quality. My friend Bob Martin often says, "the best fertilizer is the one that's on sale," again making the point that it's all about chemistry. I do have some favorites to recommend; and they include Magnum Grow, Max Sea, Sea Grow 16-16-16, Peters 20-20-20 and Miracle-Gro for Roses. Ultimately, however, the brand name is not as important as the ingredients. Read the label.

Another must for your rose feeding program is magnesium sulfate, commonly known as Epsom Salts. It stimulates new basal growth, promotes healthy foliage and strengthens the crowns of the rose plants. I incorporate it into my feeding program a number of times a year. Since I feed my roses out of a 55-gallon drum using a submersible pump (often called a "sump pump"), I just add the requisite amount to the mix periodically when I am feeding the roses. A tip when doing this is to dissolve the Epsom Salts in a bucket of hot water and stir until the crystals have dissolved before adding them to the tank mix. This will ensure they are evenly distributed to the roses and do not gather at the bottom of the tank in a clump. Another option is to sprinkle it around the drip line of the plant and water it in. (ABOVE: Butter Cream Vase of 12 (Best of Show) - shown by Suzanne Horn at Desert Rose Society Show 2016, photo by Suzanne Horn)

Mulching (LEFT) is also of great benefit to the roses. Mulch improves water retention in the soil, and it keeps roses warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Rosarians have many different materials from which to select when it comes to mulch. My mulch of choice is aged horse manure mulch from a local stable. It can often be obtained for free if you have a truck at your disposal. I like to store it in 13-gallon trash bags for use throughout the year, particularly as a topping when I transplant roses. Other options to horse manure mulch include chicken manure and a longtime favorite, Kellogg's Gromulch. Just make sure you choose an organic mulch that will break down over time to enrich the soil.


From time to time, I utilize products advertised to be magic potions designed to produce extra special results such as Superthrive, Liquid Karma and Jump Start. Superthrive is a synthetic vitamin hormone supplement, stress reducer & growth stimulant. Jump Start and Liquid Karma are super concentrates of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. I don't know how much they actually help, but they certainly can't hurt. Often, I am not sure exactly which additive has produced an excellent result I see. A good idea is to divide your rose plants into two groups, one utilizing the additive you are testing and the other without it to determine how well it is working.


Another important consideration in maintaining rose plant health is disease control. Being a serious rose exhibitor, I have zero tolerance for disease or pests during show season. Unfortunately, many of the best show roses are not disease resistant. Therefore, I spray my roses whenever necessary to get clean roses to a show. I spray fungicide preventatively and insecticide only when I see a problem. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to powdery mildew, the bane of my garden. Of note, I only spray during show season for six to eight weeks in the spring and the fall. The exception to this policy is if I encounter spider mites or chilli thrips in the garden. These pests require immediate attention to avoid damage and defoliation of the plants. For the rest of the year, my garden is "earth kind".

Lastly, I suggest you take the time to get to know each of your roses intimately. I do this by making daily trips through the rose garden to observe and perform little chores. I usually walk my garden every morning and every evening, and also hand water my roses. Not only do I get an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the roses, I get to know the special needs of all the individual rose varieties. I also get to spot the need for weeding, disbudding, deadheading, the removal of suckers, canes needing to be staked or tied up, mulch levels getting low, and the beginning signs of disease or insect problems to be averted. You'll find there is always something more you can do to increase the beauty and health of your roses on a leisurely stroll through your garden. (ABOVE: Mr. Caleb Vase of Five (Best of Show) - shown by Suzanne Horn at Desert Rose Society Show 2018, photo by Suzanne Horn)


Bob Martin once wrote, "roses reward you in proportion to your effort". Let me encourage you to make that effort and go the extra mile for your roses. Whether or not you choose to exhibit, your work and dedication will produce splendor in your garden. I wish you joy on the journey and beautiful results.

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