In This Post You Will Learn:
- My own experiences with roses
- How to fight the most common rose pests: aphids (and thrips and spider mites), Japanese beetles, and caterpillars.
- How to fight the most common rose diseases
- How to perk up mopey roses
- Picking the right rose for your climate, including drought or extreme winters
My Story with Roses
I think “my roses are dying” is something every gardener has said at some point. I took up the hobby of caring for a rose bush after the roses at my house were devoured by aphids and my mom bought me a replacement rose as a gift.
My replacement roses were the cheap kind in a tiny pot you can get in grocery stores next to cut flower arrangements. They cost $5, and they thrived without any effort on my part for a few years. I was so proud of them, sometimes deadheading them and watering them in the Summer when I felt like it, but mostly leaving to fend for itself. And it worked! My roses were lush and happy and spreading with their adorable mini one inch blooms. I loved my roses, and shared them with the world.
They were beautiful and sweet,
a visual treat,
and scented to chase away my cares.
My roses, my loves,
from bursting little buds
the treasure of my garden did flare.
And then I went and killed it.
I didn’t realize I did. I want to “divide them up”, like you can with daffodils and hostas. But roses are not bulbs. There are many different canes that sprout, but all the canes of the rose bush like to huddle next to each other. I separated the one rose bush into five different lone rose stalks, and stuck them in the ground in different places, hoping that by the end of that Summer I’d have a whole new bunch of rose bushes.
Instead I’d killed all of the roses.
I haven’t been able to replace that one rose bush with anything nearly as effective. I bought knockout roses, a specialty rose hybrid that was bred to resist disease and pests. Half of my knockout roses are always eaten away by the exact same diseases and pests they are supposed to resist. Now that I’m older, I even actually care for my roses, fighting insects and feeding them and hoping they will grow to be as wonderful as the cheap plant that cost a quarter of their name brand price. My hacks and hands on care for my roses has not returned me to my perfect no-care rose bush that I will regret ever hurting for the rest of my life.
It has, however, helped a lot.
So I want to share with you, readers, my tips that made my fancy pest free rose bush actually the closest to pest free it has been in years. There are only a few gross diseased branches, instead of almost all of them. And this despite having a garden that is completely invaded by slugs, and aphids, and ants, and cutter moths, and all kinds of things that want to eat my plants because I can’t afford to go out and buy hundreds of dollars of plant food and bug traps and beneficial bugs and pest repellents and all of that nonsense. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll share with you my much cheaper, but still fairly effective, gardening solutions to get great roses.
How You Can Win the Battle Against The Bugs in Your Rose Garden
Or, if you want to, you can be like my Mom and call them “pets”, because it sounds less mean. (What a lovable goose she is!) To fight off pests in your garden you need a two pronged approach: figure out what’s eating your plants, and set up something to eat them. Let’s dig into it!
I hate aphids. So much. Like I said, my entire history with roses has been about aphids. Well, that and being my own enemy to my roses with the whole dividing roses fiasco, but let’s not talk about that anymore. Aphids are tiny green specks that are the exact same color as healthy rose stems and leaves, but if you look closely you’ll notice these round little dots have legs and are moving around on your plants. Here’s how to recognize aphids:
- Distorted flower buds and leaves
- Sticky “honeydew”
- Black sooty mold growing on the honeydew
- Clusters of aphids
- Ants crawling on the plants and feeding on the honeydew
Ants like to eat the sweet stuff called “honeydew” aphids leave behind. These ants will tend to and care for baby aphids and defend the adult aphids from any helpful bugs that want to get rid of the aphids and save your garden. Your only hope in the bug realm to fight both aphids and ants at the same time is probably your friend and ally, the spider. There’s nothing you can do to ask a spider to come to your yard and help out though. No, you’ll have to take care of business yourself if you want to deal with these pests. You can use your hose or a bucket and do a light stream of water directly on the plants to wash away a mild infestation.
For a stronger aphid problem, you might want to try insecticidal soap. Garden Betty has great instructions for making your own organic insecticidal soap using things you definitely have on hand. And she used a lot of helpful pictures while she actually explained why she did each step!
You can also try Garden’s Alive aphid protector, which attracts good bugs to eat up the pests and makes a smell aphids dislike. I use Garden’s Alive a lot at home because I like that their products are truly organic and work better than the conventional poisons in most cases, so I’m happy to tell you about them without an affiliate link.
Spider mites and thrips also are treated by spraying water at the affected part of the plant. Spider mites are tiny orange specks on the plant that are actually just very small mites and sometimes leave stems bundled in webbing, and thrips are about the same size but dark brown and live inside and feed off of the poor baby buds. Fight them both with a hose, and after that apply insecticidal soap for any that you missed.
Japanese beetles are a common garden pest in the United States, particularly because they are not a native species to North America and that means there aren’t any bugs or birds here that eat them. I used to kind of like these beetles as a kid, because the green parts look iridescent and the brown parts look like truly metallic bronze. I think it’s one of the only cases in nature I’ve seen in person where either a metallic or iridescent effect was fully natural. But even if they are pretty, they are a very big problem in the garden.
One thing many people do to fight these pests is to hang a big ole Japanese Beetle Trap. These things are like two feet long and hang from a pole in your yard. They take up space my little garden doesn’t have. I also can’t afford to put them in for the sake of my plants, because the way a beetle trap works is to have lures that will attract the pest away from the plants to the trap, and that means putting the trap a solid 12 or more feet away from your plants you want the beetles to leave. I don’t have 12 feet in my garden just sitting around without plants. Setting up one of these traps would just be setting a different plant up to be devoured.
So I use the second option instead. You can plant garlic plants in the Fall or Spring on either side of your rose plants, or in the Summer you can mix up half and half garlic and some plain veggie oil in a spray bottle and periodically spritz that on your plants on Sunny days so the smell drives the beetles away from your plants. Eventually, hopefully, they’ll completely give up on your yard and go harass the plants in the park or something instead of your garden. Take that, bugs!
Caterpillars are the cute and lovable creatures of the bug world that every child seems to be fascinated with. I used to be fascinated by them too, I get it. But they are total plant bullies and want to be the Mean Girls of your garden. But you can fight the tyranny!
You just want to pick off any caterpillars by hand and put them in a bucket. Some people put them into a soapy bucket, which will kill them. Others just put a tiny bit of water in, just enough to wet the surface so the caterpillars can’t get out, and then they take them away to dump them in a place where they are allowed to live and eat and won’t bother anyone.
A note on handpicking caterpillars though- in North America, the rule of thumb is that if it’s smooth it’s safe to touch, if it’s fuzzy it may be poisonous or hurt you to touch. Use thick leather gloves made for dealing with thorny plants like roses if you must remove spikey or fuzzy caterpillars.
Save Dying Plants
No matter what you do to fight pests on your roses, you need to also have roses that are strong enough to fight off diseases like rust and mildew. They only make the plant weaker against buglies, and they also make your plant look less pretty. Fight the good fight against the rose equivalent of a cold or athlete’s foot, and your roses will thank you with more blooms and many more years ahead of you to enjoy their scent and good looks.
Black spot is very easy to identify on roses because it is literally black spots. The best way to prevent black spot is to either buy varieties of roses that are bred to be black spot resistant (though they can still get it sometimes, as my own “resistant” rose’s frequent problem proves) or to remove any infected areas. When you do remove infected areas- leaves, stems, everything with the problem- be sure not to put it in your main compost pile where it can spread and become an even worse problem when you use that compost on your roses and other plants next year. Also be sure to properly trim roses every year using a guide like this from Heirloom Roses.
Powdery mildew always looks not very powdery at all to me. It’s tiny white spots, like the leaves have been coated in powder sugar, but there’s nothing 3-D about it. Anyway, this menace is dealt with much the same way as Black Spot, removing the diseased area and putting them into a quarantined compost pile instead of your main compost pile. (Alternatively, if you don’t have the space for multiple compost piles, you could potentially throw it out in the trash, but if you do so please throw it out bundled into a paper grocery bag so that it can all decompose at the dump or wherever it’s going instead of a plastic bag.)
Rose Rosette Disease
This is a gnarly and incurable rose disease, so act fast if you notice it. Like every other rose disease, you will have to remove the infected parts of the plant all the way down at the very bottom of the cane, and dispose of them far away from your good compost in the trash, because this wind blown disease will come back to haunt you even if you dispose of the infected parts in a quarantined compost separated from the rest. If you leave some of the cane, you are drastically increasing your chance of total rose death. Once you’ve removed infected parts, spray down your plant liberally with insecticidal soap, using the recipe in the aphid section of this post. |Learn more about Rose Rosette Disease from Fine Gardening here.
Boost Dull Plants
Sometimes your plants aren’t being attacked by any disease or pests at all. Sometimes they are just being mopey. But it is easy to fix mopey roses!
Feed your Roses
Roses tend to be very fussy at the beginning and end of the season, but if you do a very good job at those times then you don’t need to worry about the plant itself during the many months of the growing season. To prep roses at the ends of the season, scratch out some of the dirt away from the ground under the plants- just about a cup of soil in total- and spread some of your compost there instead. I just use one of those little hand rakes you get in a basic gardening tools kit like this one (affiliate link, no extra cost to you to use) to move a bit of dirt like this or rake out leaves under bushes and other hard to reach spots that a full size garden rake won’t reach.
You’ll also want to feed your roses about a month before the first real frost, near the end of Fall. If you can’t feed your roses with compost because you don’t have any, you can also make organic rose fertilizer from Natural Living Ideas.
Water Your Roses
I Find I need to water my roses about once a week. When I do water roses, I take a big watering can and place the spout on top of the ground before tilting it to the side so the water can slowly pour out, slow enough for the ground to absorb it rather than it becoming run off or eroding your soil. I also place it next to the ground so it doesn’t splash around and waste water or cause mildew problems.
If you live in an area where a drought is more common than a bad few weeks in August just the one time every ten years or so, then you might need to accept that drought is just something you should plan at the buying plants stage. There are drought resistant roses. Do not buy traditional hybrid roses engineered for the South East where there is rain a plenty. Gardening Know How has a whole guide on choosing drought resistant rose varieties. If you live in Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico, or other famously dry places, please make the environmentally responsible decision in every plant purchase and look for a drought tolerant plant.
Roses for The Cold
If you have plenty of water but a very short growing season because you live in a cold region, look into buying rosa rugosa, which is not a grafted hybrid but instead a very sturdy and life resistant plant that grows true to type (unlike a graft, where one rose plant is slapped onto the root stock of another rose plant, which can sometimes be a problem.) Rosa rugosa also grows big edible rose hips, which are great for tea or jellies and have more vitamin C than oranges!
If you want more rose options, the University of Minnesota has a chart of all the cold resistant roses. I would trust Minnesota to know a thing or two about cold and Winter, so I think you are safe growing their recommendations anywhere in North America that has cold snaps- except for maybe the most extreme conditions in the Dakotas.
If all of your roses are spent and brown, but it is still the growing season, it may be time to deadhead. Deadheading is done by clipping spent blooms off with sharp garden shears or clippers. (Dull garden shears will leave a ragged cut and raise the chance of getting some incurable rose diseases.) Redneck Rosarian has a great in-depth tutorial on deadheading.
Your Roses Should Be Pretty Happy With all of That
Once you’ve treated the common pests and diseases that affect roses, as well as perking them up with deadheading and compost, your roses should be pretty darned happy.
Let me know in the comments below if this helps you or your roses!