Sunday, March 27, 2011

Creating A New Bed For Roses

This time of the year, I am hungry to be outside in my garden. I look forward to the weeding, edging and mulching . It is a meditative practice for me. Of course, I like how the garden looks when I am done. But, it is too soon for these activities. Now is the time to figure out where I am going to put all those new varieties of roses that I have ordered. And as soon as it warms up some more, I can start creating new garden beds. I have used a variety of approaches and want to share what I’ve learned with you. We moved to our new property seven years ago this past September. It had been a hayfield. The soil is a gravel loam. There was a long swath alongside the driveway scraped clean by the bulldozer. I had dozens of roses in three gallon pots to plant, a house to unpack and settle in and the school year had just begun. Every day after school, I would be out there with a pick and shovel, digging holes for roses through October and November. I did not amend the soil. I dug each hole a little bigger than the pot. When they were all planted, I mulched the whole area six inches deep with bark mulch. Here's what it looked like the following spring. This is what that bed looked like several years later.

The following spring and summer, I added rose beds around the terrace and down the slope. That area had been seeded to lawn the previous fall. I rototilled the beds and worked in lots of compost. The roses I planted here were also in three gallon pots. This time I covered the area with about six inches of wood chips instead of bark mulch. The wood chips were free. This is what that area looked like a year after it was planted.

Here's what it looked like a few years after that. This view is from the other end of those beds, looking up towards the house.

The following year, I needed to add more garden beds, but didn’t have the time or energy to bring in compost and rototill. For these beds I used a method called sheet composting. I dug holes in the lawn and planted the roses. As before, the roses had well established root systems in three gallon pots. The lawn area around the roses was covered with thick layers of wet newspaper overlapped like shingles. This was covered with a layer of wet cardboard and topped off with about six inches of wood chips. The newspaper and cardboard kill the grass underneath and break down within a year or so. Here's a view of that bed a couple of years after it was planted. The women in the picture are my daughter, Sylvie, and my daughter-in-law, Jeanne. That's Jeanne's dog, Finn, watering the roses.

Every year, I add additional mulch to all of the beds. They have not been fertilized. No additional watering was done after the roses were established. Roses growing in beds created in these three ways are indistinguishable in terms of vigor and health. One would think that the beds that were rototilled and given additional compost would have shown better growth or that beds mulched with ground bark would be in better shape than those mulched with wood chips. Given decent soil conditions, it seems as if that additional work is not necessary. If you have heavy clay soil you might consider adding compost and rototilling. Adding sand will not improve the soil as well as adding compost. The climbers pictured below, lining the driveway were planted using sheet composting. I have added a bucket of compost around the base of each of them every other year or so. They look pretty good don't they?

I have made new beds every year we’ve been here. I’m thinking that this year might be the last year for increasing and expanding the rose beds, as it is taking me longer and longer to get them all weeded, edged and mulched. So that after this year, if a new variety is going to be added something else has to go. My family and friends are skeptical.


  1. WOW. Again. This seems to be a common theme. If there isnt much difference in growth between the three styles... then I am heading in the sheet composting direction! I think I will start having Aurora dig up the plants we know and love, pot them up, and then we can replant as we deal with weed eradication. Nice!

  2. Alex- You've spent years amending your soil. Your only problem is that the weeds got the upper hand this past year. Sheet composting will solve that. Start saving newspaper and cardboard. You'd be amazed how much you will use. We might even be able to leave your perennials in place and mulch right up to them. Then it's just a matter of popping in a few roses. Instant garden. We'll have to have a garden party when it's done to celebrate.

  3. Oh yeah, we are skeptical. We've done sheet composting for years (thank you, NY Times)and it works. You can also start new beds in the fall by doing it and just digging through in the spring. Such bliss. Spring IS coming.