Rooting Roses

Wednesday, February 15, 2012
I embark on this blog with some reservations, as any commentary about roses can draw be risky for the writer. It is true that everyone who grows roses, professionally or as a hobby, has valuable tips to share and even when some diverge from mine, the exchange is nice. Sadly, it is also true that pieces like this one draw the ire of other rosarians, strident and armed with caustic criticism. That’s not nice. Perhaps to prove that my skin has grown thick as a turtle shell, here’s what I know about rooting roses from prunings. Everybody wants to do it. The very sight of all that viable plant material lying on the ground is just sad, and it doesn’t compost that well, either. Not every gardening zone follows this practice in February as we do in the Southeast, but it works at whatever point in the year you are pruning roses. It helps if they are primarily leafless, but even in areas where roses bloom all year, there comes a time when the wood has hardened off a bit and roots readily. The same conditions are often found where cold winters mean fall pruning and wrapped roses. In all cases, the wood is semi-hard and will not easily bend in half nor snap in two. From the pile of rose trimmings, sort stems to find the greenest wood that is about as big around as a pencil. Usually this is near the tip of the stem, but not always, such as if the tip has been damaged by cold weather or is especially green. I have reduced my rose collection considerably and some of them climbers not ready for pruning until later in the year. Still, it’s a full day’s chore that I relish for its accomplishment but also for its rooting material. Some of the cut stems are perfect, strong and resilient all the way to their tips, but I take many cuttings several inches behind the tip where the wood is stronger. Pencil-thick or slightly less, six inches long and cut above one node and below another. Cut the upper end straight across and cut the lower end on a slant to expose more stem and so you don’t stick them upside down. If leaves are present, remove them from the lower half of the cutting, dip it in Hormex, and stick it into damp media. Oh, and don’t forget to label the cuttings with name and date. Not everyone roots roses the same way, but when you see good results, it’s wise to pay attention. Veteran rose grower Johnny Broussard, my neighbor, roots cuttings taken from winter prunings to keep his collection of 2 dozen or so varieties going and to share. He says, “I root at least 5 cuttings from each bush, and end up saving one and giving the rest away. I take long cuttings – 6 inches – and try to take them from the center of the rose.” this practice insures plenty of sunlight and good air circulation reaches the rose. He explains that he sticks the rose stem 4 inches into the soil and leaves only 2 inches above the soil level to provide plenty of places for roots to initiate. “I stick three cuttings into an 8” pot full of good potting soil, water the pots once and leave them outside for a year,” Broussard says, “Just water when the pot feels light, nothing else is needed.” He does soak the rose cuttings in a solution of ‘willow water’ for 24 hours before potting them up. “I put short pieces of pencil-size black willow stems in warm water overnight, then use the water to soak the rose cuttings,” he says. In 20+ years of growing rosebushes, Broussard says he has used Hormex rooting hormone powder when he didn’t have access to willow trees and it works fine. He just likes the ‘old ways’ like willow water, long known as a rooting stimulator. I don’t use individual pots unless I’m rooting for the Farmer’s Market or for folks planting community rose gardens. Instead, I root rose cuttings in flats filled with 1 part potting mix combined with 1 part fine ground bark or sharp sand. I also make a container planting mix for other purposes and sometimes use that. The goal is a soil that drains well but does not dry out too rapidly, either. I put the flat under a plastic cloche to increase humidity around the cuttings and keep it under a plant light indoors or in my sunny unheated greenhouse. Whenever possible, I use a heating mat under the rose flat because I have found that it speeds rooting by several weeks. I use Hormex rooting hormone powder #1 as recommended or #3 if the winter has been cold and the wood is particularly hard. In this relatively warm winter, that won’t be an issue.
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