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Plant bare root roses now for summer glory

Even though the ground is wet and the weather's blustery, now is the time to plant bare root roses for a glorious summer garden.

According to Daphne Smith, nurserywoman at Garden Supply-Los Altos, there are only about two more weeks left for planting bare root roses in the Los Altos area.

"It's not cold enough for roses to really sleep in our climate, so the opportunity to select bare root specimens only lasts about eight weeks - mid-December through Feb. 14. In my experience, the end of the bare root season never deviates more than a week - after mid-February, roses break out, which means they develop leaves and must be planted in soil," Smith said.

Don't worry, you can plant roses at other times of the year, too, but during the bare root season they are cheaper and the selection is better. At Garden Supply - Los Altos, bare root prices range from $7.99 to $12.99.

"Ironically, older rose varieties which are the best performers are also the cheapest, because their patents have run out," Smith said, citing hardy local favorites like "Mr. Lincoln," "Iceberg," and "Bewitched."

Picking out new roses is one of life's most pleasurable (and optimistic) tasks. Selections of colors, fragrance, number of flowers per stem and types of blossom - single, ruffled, cabbage, etc. - have multiplied tremendously in recent years, as hybridizers cross old varieties to create new roses with as many desirable qualities as possible.

"This year's four 'All American' roses look great," Smith said. She is especially impressed with "Sunset Celebration," an apricot-color rose with strong fragrance and "Fame," a bright pink grandiflora. Each year's "All America" roses are selected after test growers around the country (usually members of rose societies) record their performance under different geographic and climatic conditions.

Smith's personal favorites? Like a fond mother, the experienced nurserywoman hates to choose among her enormous brood.

"It takes me at least 20 years to form a firm opinion," she laughed. "But I really like 'Bewitched,' 'Just Joey,' 'French Lace,' 'French Perfume,' and 'Intrigue.'

According to Garden Supply-Los Altos buyer Laura Woodward, Los Altos-area rose fanciers have fallen hard for the relatively new David Austin roses. Austin, an extremely successful English rose hybridizer, has created multi-petaled, old-fashioned type blossoms in lovely colors which bloom repeatedly through the spring, summer, and fall. Most true heritage-type roses only bloom once in the spring.

"But you must be patient with the David Austins," Woodward advised. "They need two years' growth before they bloom well; they need a year of latency to develop flowering wood for the second year."

When you bring home new bare root roses, soak them from one to 24 hours in warm water to re-hydrate the roots and canes. For best planting results, Smith advises that two people work together: "One person can hold the rose level, with the roots spread over a central 'cone' of soil within the hole, and one person can fill in the hole with a rose soil mix, combined half and half with native soil," she said. "Most planting holes should be at least 18 inches deep and wide enough for the natural shape of the roots to spread out over the cone."

Once the new rose is planted, use a light mulch on top of the soil. Woodward recommends using wood chips (patio bark) for this protective layer, which shades the roots and helps the rose retain moisture.

"As the wood chips slowly decompose, then add feedings of compost, either commercial or home-grown, or rose fertilizer" she said.

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