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Roses from A to Z Column 26
July, 2008

Watering restrictions don't faze roses.

Roses and Drought

Mutabalis is hardy enough to withstand drought.

By Carolyn Parker

I Surprisingly, I recently adjusted to mandatory water rationing without stress to me or the roses.

I admit, up until recently I watered my back garden every day in the summer. The front garden timer was set for every other day, but during hot weather, those sprinklers also ran daily. I won't mention the amount of supplemental hand-watering I indulged in.

My attitude was that roses love water; drought gardening is no fun to write about. Truth is, roses are drought-tolerant, especially old roses.

In Thomas Christopher's book "In Search of Lost Roses," he writes about Pamela Puryear, who found a huge specimen of Old Blush (first discovered in 1793 in China) flourishing next to an abandoned log cabin in rural Texas.

Pamela was astounded that the neglected rose had survived many years of Texas heat and drought. Since her Hybrid Teas always died in the harsh climate, she began replacing them with this more hardy type.

Rose rustlers

That was in 1969. Pamela is often credited as the first rose rustler. Soon, other enthusiastic gardeners joined her rose-searching forays, and the movement was born. They found that the sturdy once-blooming Gallicas, Albas and Centifolias did very well in drought conditions. However they were more interested in rebloomers like Old Blush.

They discovered that other China roses — Cramoisi Superieur, Hermosa, Matteo's Silk Butterflies — did very well with little water. They found that Tea roses — such as Duchesse de Brabant and Georgetown Tea — survived harsh conditions as well.

Dr. Steven George, an Extension horticulturist at Texas A&M University, took the search for hardy, drought-resistant roses a few steps further. In 1996, he began a scientific study that subjected 468 roses to extreme conditions. The roses were never fertilized, never sprayed, received no supplemental watering after the first year and were never pruned, other than to remove deadwood.

The winners

Eleven roses emerged as spectacular performers. They were introduced in 2002 as EarthKind roses. The first group included Sea Foam, Marie Daly, the Fairy, Caldwell Pink, Red Knock Out, Perle d'Or, Belinda's Dream, Else Poulsen, Carefree Beauty, Mutabilis and Climbing Pinkie.

In an article about EarthKind roses, Gaye Hammond recommends fairly standard care instructions, but her paragraph on mulch is so instructive and timely for all roses, I want to include it here:

"Maintaining a 3 to 4 inch layer of hardwood mulch on your roses will eliminate the need to fertilize the bushes with commercial or organic fertilizers. Even though roses are known as heavy feeders, we have found that maintaining a 3 to 4 inch layer of hardwood mulch (preferably containing shredded hardwood, outer bark and leaf tissue) replicates forest floor conditions. Gardeners will find during the first year the bottom inch of mulch will decompose into humus.

"If, at the end of the first year, the gardener adds another inch of mulch on top of the existing layers it should take only 6 months for the next bottom inch of mulch to decompose. After the first year, gardeners who have created this 'living mulch' cycle will only need to add 1 inch of hardwood mulch 2 times each year."

China rose

In 2005, the rose Mutabilis was named EarthKind Rose of the Year. This famous five-petal China rose, first introduced in 1894, has long been a mainstay in our garden. Coral-peach buds open yellow-peach in the morning, turn pink in the afternoon, and change to crimson as the sun goes down.

The handsome shrub is a vigorous grower with a constant supply of blooms that are often still going strong in February. The rose is also deer-resistant. Prune it to size or let it reach 6 feet or more.

Well-established old garden roses can be watered once or twice a month, or not at all. If you're watering by hand, Hybrid Tea and Floribundas like a deep watering once a week.

Water wisely

EBMUD prohibits irrigating on consecutive days or more than three days a week. That means there will be two consecutive days a week without water. That unnerved me at first, but I'm getting used to it. Many plants are hardier than we think.

Accepting that there are drought conditions has actually opened new areas of learning that are fun to write about and exciting to implement. Google EarthKind for more information, and study EBMUD's valuable resource book "Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region."