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Coaxing Roses to Bloom Six Times a Year

May 09, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

It's going to be hard to beat the blooms now fading on rose bushes, but if you act quickly, the second flowering can come close. And, if you keep acting, you can coax roses into flowering six times, by my count, before it is time to prune them back in winter.

Wild roses and most old roses flower but once, in the spring or early summer, and if you are growing any of the "heritage" roses expect at best a second bloom in the fall. But if you are growing modern roses, expect much more. What perhaps most distinguishes modern roses from all of their elegant ancestors is their ability to bloom and bloom and bloom. With prompt and proper care, they will flower and then build up the steam to flower again, much like a flash recycling on a camera so it can flash again.

The first flash from roses, usually coming like clockwork on April 1, but a few weeks late this year, is without a doubt the best. The flowers are their biggest and brightest, though they come pretty close again in the fall when the weather has cooled a little. How well they flower the second and subsequent times depends on what you do right now.

As quickly as possible after the petals fall, the old flower stems must be cut off. You do not want an ounce of energy being expended by the rose toward making fruit--the rose "hips."

Where you cut off these flowers is as important as when because the thickness of the stem where you make the cut naturally determines how large the new stem will be. You can't expect a nice sturdy stem to develop from a thin or spindly one. And large flowers only come on thick stems. My guide here is to cut back to where the stem is as thick as a pencil, or a little thicker. This may mean cutting pretty far back into the bush, especially this early in the season.

Pruning, Not Cutting

This after-flowering pruning is more than simply cutting off the flowers. It is pruning. Of course, you can cut the flowers for a bouquet while they are in bud or in flower, but cut them off where the stem is the thickness of a pencil. This, by the way, pretty much guarantees a nice long stem for the vase.

Cuts should always be made just above a leaf on the stem, preferably a leaf that faces out from the bush so the new growth doesn't grow into the center and become tangled with other branches. Make sure the shears are sharp so they don't tear the thin green bark.

This all sounds easy enough, but you are going to find stems on the rose that don't fit this description. For instance, you will find that some flowers come on very short, wiry stems that spring from a small tangle of woody growth. This gnarly growth should have been pruned off last winter, but now is the time to take corrective action by cutting below it--and thus removing it entirely--for a fresh start. Sometimes, it even means cutting the stem all the way back to a larger cane, or even to the ground. Though this sounds severe, it will prompt the rose to send out new growth--thick, healthy canes that will provide flowers all summer and fall.

There will be other exceptions too--places where you are not sure where to cut--but if you follow the pencil-thickness rule you can't go wrong. If you can't find a place where the stem is thick enough, the whole stem should probably go.

With the old flowers pruned off, it is time to fertilize--to provide the energy needed for the recycling of the rose. Any granular fertilizer will do, though those labeled just for roses take the guesswork out of buying fertilizer and probably have very specific instructions for how much to use.

This granular fertilizer should be sprinkled around the base of the rose and then the soil lightly roughed up with a steel-pronged rake. Don't use a long-tined cultivator because rose roots are surprisingly shallow and will be damaged.

Wash Off and Water

Now wash any fertilizer off the plant and then put a sprinkler on the end of the hose, set it in the rose bed and water thoroughly. The water will partially dissolve the fertilizer and carry it into the soil, though more will dissolve each time you water.

While you're roughing up the soil, pull out any weeds by hand and rake up any fallen petals or leaves, since these carry disease from one season to the next. This is a good time to get after any pests or diseases on roses, while they are out of flower.

With the roses cut back, tidied up and fertilized, you have only to water regularly and wait for more flowers. And, each time they flower, follow these same steps and they should flower again, right into December. By my count last year, that was six complete flowering cycles in one year, something few flowers can boast of.

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