When I talked to new rosarians around Ohio during
those years, I was astonished at what they were
growing: Bourbons such as ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’ and
‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’. Tender hybrid teas, such
as ‘Elegant Beauty’ and ‘Royal Highness’. Tree roses!
“What are you using for winter protection?” I would
ask, only to be answered with quizzical looks. There’s
not much discussion of winter protection at the Home
Depot garden center, or in rose books from England,
where roses grow up into trees, and tree roses need no
winter protection. A gardener who experiences this
sort of success right from the start has no reason to
convert to a system that promises the same result in
exchange for a lot more work. I am no different, and
had I started my garden during these years I would
have seen no reason to winter-protect roses, dig calla
lilies, or put a heater in the fish pond.
With the winter of 2000–2001, however, Zone 7
deserted northern Ohio, and our traditional conditions—temperatures
to –20˚F with unreliable snow
cover—returned with a vengeance. In spring 2001 the
phone calls began. “My roses look as if they’re dead.
What should I do?”
Some especially tough roses, such as the rugosas,
albas, and most gallicas and kordesiis, need no winter
protection at all in Zones 4 and 5. But, because we
are gardeners, we do not limit ourselves to these sorts.
For everything else, the question is: How much winter
protection does a particular plant need?
The rose classification system, based in roughly
equal measure on genetics, commercial considerations,
and whimsy, is helpful only as a starting point.
Noisette roses, for example, are supposed to be hardy
only to Zone 7. This is usually true, but at least one
With proper preparation most
any rose can make it through a
hard winter. Peter Schneider
A Rose Grower’s
24 the gardener
Noisette, ‘Reine Olga de Wurtemberg’, is perfectly
hardy for me in Zone 5b. While hybrid teas are said to
be winter hardy with nominal protection to Zone 5, a
few (notably the exquisite creations of the Californian
Joe Winchel) are quite tender here, even with extraordinary
protection. So a rose’s classification is neither a
guarantee of its hardiness nor a reason to strike it off
your wish list. Color is often a helpful consideration:
yellow, apricot, and buff-colored roses are almost
always more perishable than their red and pink counterparts.
This tenderness is a genetic legacy of ‘Soleil
d’Or’, the weakling rose that ushered these colors into
modern roses.
Microclimate makes a big difference as well. If you
have a spot for roses near the south side of your house,
or by a pond, or above a slope that will drain away
frost, you can grow roses that would usually be considered
inappropriate in your area. For many years
one Ohio rosarian grew tender roses with almost no
winter dieback because his garden was built on top of
a cellar. And whatever advantage your topography
doesn’t give you is still there for the taking: any rose
can be brought through any winter, if you want to
work hard enough.
In Zones 5 and 6, most hybrid teas and floribundas
can be successfully wintered with a simple protective
mound. This is not done with the expectation
that a half-bushel of compost is going to stop the
ground from freezing. Quite the opposite. When
applied in a timely manner—when the ground is
frozen but before temperatures have fallen into single
The perfect material for
mounding has enough weight
to stay put and not blow away
and enough texture to keep
from matting down into an
impenetrable layer. Sawdust is
a good bet if you
have a ready source. The best
leaves for mounding are
oak, which don’t form a mat or
create a gooey mess as maples
do. Linden and gingko also
turn into slimy clods and should
be avoided. Keep the oak
leaves in place with chicken
wire. Compost is great if you
have lots of compost and few
roses. Garden soil works fine,
but be sure to get it from
another part of the garden.
Scraping it up from beside the
rose you are trying to protect
will simply expose its roots to
the cold. Avoid using manure
as it tends to burn the canes.
It is more important to completely
cover the bud union
than to achieve a particular
height. I dump a 5-gallon
bucket of sawdust over the top
of each rose. This covers the
bud union and some of the
root zone. Mound your roses
when ground is frozen but
before temperatures fall into
single digits (Fahrenheit). In
northern Ohio this is almost
always Thanksgiving weekend.
You should unearth your roses
just before the sprouts break,
which in my garden occurs
just before the forsythia
blooms. For the job I use a
child’s 3-tine cultivator. I
bought one in a drugstore
about fifteen years ago and
have used it for this purpose
and this purpose only ever
since. Another approach is to
use a garden hose with a gentle
flow of water, which will
wash the winter protection
away from the bud union. This
is foolproof but can be time
Do’s and Don’ts for Mounding
Cover the plant
with a thick
layer of soil or
Loosen half the
root system, and
dig a hole opposite
for the
The Minnesota
Tip Method
of Protection
digits—it will keep the ground
from thawing. Winter does
more damage to roses during
sunny interludes than during
snowstorms, both by evaporating
water from rose tissue and by
stimulating cell action that will only
be blasted by subsequent freezing temperatures.
Roses are not tender
in the same sense
that coleus, for example,
are tender. Rather,
roses are tender
because they are prone
to grow with minimal
prompting, and can withstand only so many checks to
this growth. A good winter protection moderates
freeze-and-thaw cycles, and keeps the rose from trying
to grow too soon.
Rosarians who live in regions with early and reliable
snow cover know that they need not cover their
roses with anything else. I put a five-gallon bucket of
sawdust over each rose. (Someone who heard this, and
knew that I grew more than a thousand roses, once
asked, “How do you find so many buckets?”) Sawdust
is great because it is relatively light to carry, but quick
to pack down around the rose without blowing away.
In the spring, it can simply be raked into the bed. This
is followed by an application of high-nitrogen granular
fertilizer such as 20-10-10, which is more than
enough to replace whatever nitrogen the decomposing
sawdust consumes.
Oak leaves also make a good winter mulch in
Zone 6, if held in place with rabbit fencing or newspaper
collars. Maple and other softwood leaves make
a gooey mess, and fresh manure will only burn or rot
the rose canes you are trying to protect. If you choose
to mound your roses with garden soil, it must be
brought in from a different part of the garden.
Scraping it up from between the roses will only expose
tender roots, doing more harm than good.
Fitting directly over the rose plant, Styrofoam rose
cones are a tested strategy for winter protection. They
are especially effective in preventing desiccation
caused by wind. But there are drawbacks to this
approach. The rose must be cut back severely before
the cone will fit over it, mold can form inside
the cone, and summer storage of the cones
can be a problem if you have more than a
Microfoam blankets are an effective winter
covering for bedding roses. The roses
must still be cut back but not as severely as
for use with rose cones. The biggest drawback
with these blankets is that they create a
comfy winter environment for rodents.
The surest way to winter a tender rose in
a harsh climate is to loosen its roots on one
side, tip it over, and cover it with mounds of
soil, bales of straw, or a temporary cold
frame. This “Minnesota Tip” method of
winter protection will bring just about any rose
through a Zone 4 winter, and is necessary for very tender
types, such as teas and Noisettes, in Zones 5 and 6.
Unless you want to grow them in pots, it is the only
practical way to get tree roses through the winter in
the North.
While other marginal woody plants, such as magnolias,
become more winter hardy as they get older
and thicker, a ten-year-old rose is just as vulnerable as
a two-year-old one. A ten-year-old climbing rose,
however, will be much more spectacular than a twoyear-old
climber, and for this reason extraordinary
measures, such as the Minnesota Tip, make most
sense for roses that require height to be effective in the
garden, or those that bloom only on old wood.
Once about every 50 years or so, someone comes up
with the idea that bud-grafted roses can be made
much more hardy if planted with the bud union four
to six inches below the ground. The unstated goal
of this plan is to make a budded plant into an ownroot
one. Over time this may happen, in which case
you may wind up with a less vigorous version of
your hybrid tea; if it does not establish on its own
roots, you will be left with a very sad-looking rose that
rarely puts out more than one cane. For the best
results, cold-climate gardeners should plant budded
roses with the bud union about one inch below the
ground. Adding appropriate winter protection each
year will guarantee a long life for your roses—even the
ones you shouldn’t be growing.

Written by Tovah Martin

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