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Roses | Advice from Suzy Verrier

“American gardeners have an inferiority complex when it comes to growing roses. They are conditioned by the big greenhouses with their glossy catalogs to buy roses that will supposedly bloom easily, perfectly, and constantly. They want perfection. If they don’t get it, there is something wrong with that rose. Half the roses the big houses sell are called hardy — but they’re really hardy only to places like Maryland or Virginia. There are so many microclimates in America that you really have to pick and choose carefully, but also experiment year to year, move things around. I think a great deal of misinformation is dispersed through those big outfits.”

“The most common misconception about planting roses is that the graft should be just above the ground level. In fact, in a climate like ours, it should be at least three inches below the surface! That way, if your kids run over it with a bicycle or the severity of winter damage is great, the plant will undoubtedly come back. We’ve also been taught to prune roses in the fall. That’s wrong, too. The longer canes help protect the plant, and by cutting them back for winter, you’re only assuring more winterkill.”

“We don’t spray at Forevergreen Farm. People are so hyper about a few little spots. Sure there are periods when Japanese beetles or aphids are pretty active, but in my experience, by the time you can do something about them, the damage is done. Besides, the pests seldom last long.”

“We don’t use a commercial rose food. We use manure, a vitamin-hormone supplement, and a seaweed and fish emulsion called Sea Mix, which we apply rather infrequently, certainly not every two weeks as some of the commercial mixes suggest. Hit them with Sea Mix and some manure in midsummer. I find one common sin of rose growers is that they overfertilize and overwater. New roses should be watered heavily their first year, but after that, if the root system is good, you should water them frequently only through midsummer.”

“Mulch! Now here’s a problem area. I regret to say that the traditional bark mulch you find at most gardening centers is in fact terrible for gardens. It takes the life right out of the ground. It is insufficiently decomposed and still has living material in it that actually sucks the nitrogen right out of your plants! It’s hard to convince people that this is true. But it’s becoming my personal mission! You need to find a dealer who offers a decayed compost of old hay, food scraps, anything organic that’s decently decomposed. You want a mulch that is going to contribute to your rose garden, not starve it to death.”

We concluded our tour with a cool drink by a reflecting pool. We talked about my particular rose problems, and she made a few specific suggestions. “I’m sorry I called your roses wimps,” she said in the end. “What I meant to say was, there’s so much more you can do – roses really aren’t as difficult to manage as we’ve been led to believe. The good news is, there’s a world of possibilities out there.”

On that encouraging note, I lifted my glass to Suzy Verrier — and a rosier future.

Updated Thursday, May 27th, 2010

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