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Time to Plant Bare-Root Roses

December 27, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Smaus is an associate editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine

There is no better way to buy and plant roses than bare root--and the earlier in the season the better, because roses don't stay leafless and dormant for long in Southern California. If you can get to your favorite nursery today, or next week, you will find their best and freshest selection.

After Christmas, I look forward to planting roses almost as much as I look forward to Christmas itself. The weather is usually warm but wintery, and the damp soil is easy to dig in. The days are short and the sun is low but in this orange light, the soil looks rich and alive.

If you have not yet discovered the benefits of bare-root planting, a quick review is in order. Bare-root roses are just that--their roots are bare of soil and their tops have been cut back and are leafless. What you take home from the nursery most resembles a rose that is dead, but it is merely dormant.

These bare-root plants are several years old and will become good-sized plants, at least two to three feet tall, by late spring, and they will bloom the first of April after first leafing out as early as late January. That is why you want to act quickly. They are also grafted plants--the top growth was attached to the roots while they were young, which is why any growth coming from below this point of attachment--called the bud union --is different.

This bud union has been a source of minor controversy in Southern California. The controversy surrounds how deep, or how high above ground, this bud union should end up after the rose is planted. For years, I followed the somewhat radical practice of burying it below the ground, so only the canes (the rose branches) would show. Not only did this look very tidy and natural, but the idea, as I recall, was that the rose could make roots above the bud union and grow without the help of the roots it had been grafted onto.

This I learned from the rose experts at the Huntington Botanical Gardens, but they, and I, have seen the error of our ways. While some roses did thrive, some have also died. As in many things, a compromise seemed in order. So, the roses being planted this year at the Huntington, and in my garden, are being set in the ground so the bud union is half in and half out.

How do you plant a bare-root rose? Most nurseries have drawings available or posted somewhere, but here it is in a nutshell: The hole should be large enough for the roots when they are spread out. Mix a granular rose fertilizer into the excavated soil, about two tablespoons worth, and put some of this soil back into the hole, shaping it into a cone. This cone of soil will support the rose and help spread out the roots in a natural fashion. The roots will clasp the cone of soil.

To make sure that bud union is at the proper depth, lay a board across the hole to see where the soil line will be; position the rose and then begin filling in the hole, packing the soil down as you go. What about soil amendments, so important for many plants? With bare root roses it is optional. You can add organic matter or planting mix to the soil that goes back in the hole--mixing them thoroughly--or you can simply put back the dirt.

Mound up a watering basin around the rose and soak it thoroughly. And cover it with a plain paper bag from the market. The paper bag protects the thin skin of the new rose from drying winds and sun. Leave it on for about a week until the first new roots have taken hold. Then there is little else to do until the rose starts growing leaves.

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