How to Grow Garden Roses in Southern California

We all have a few surprises in life; I’m referring to the ones you could never predict or see coming until BAM, you’ve been blindsided. For me, one of those delights was a rose garden. If you would have asked me ten years ago if I’d like to grow roses, I would have responded with a passionate: 

“Never.”

“Absolutely not.”

“No way.”

“Zero-interest.”

During my first year of flower farming, my florist friend Bethany would invite me up the steps to her second-floor apartment to admire whatever flowers she was using for her wedding designs that week. It was there that I had my first unforgettable encounter with a garden rose. Bethany oooo’d and ahhhh’d over this flower more than all the others, and her admiration was contagious. Garden roses are incredibly fragrant, and they open up more like a peony than a standard greenhouse rose, nothing like the tightly bound, neutral-smelling red roses shipped across far flung distances. We put in an order together from a California rose farm so I could see, and smell, the different varieties before deciding what to plant. Rose bushes have a long life and produce flowers year after year; they’re also expensive, so choosing varieties to grow felt like a huge decision.

Since that pivotal time from the past, my rose garden has expanded to 45 plants. I lovingly grow three breathtaking varieties: Honey Dijon, Koko Loco, and Queen of Sweden–all very useful for modern floral design, but more importantly, they’re my favorites. I hope you have the chance to encounter the delicate beauty of a garden rose. Embrace this flower with your hand, inhale it, feel breathless, if only for just a moment, from its beauty. I don’t consider myself a rose expert by any means, but I have had a great deal of success growing roses here in Zone 10b. The following is what I’ve learned from experience:

Garden roses are best grown from bare roots sourced early in the year; in January and February you will find the best selection. They can also be purchased as potted plants during the growing season from a local farm or nursery.

Plant your garden roses 2.5 feet apart in full or part sun, although they can be planted further apart or as close to a foot if you’re short on space. Plant into good soil amended with compost. Mulch your roses using woodchips, straw, leaves, or cardboard. Roses are heavy drinkers, and all of my roses are on drip irrigation with at least 3 drippers per plant.  

Garden roses are prone to all kinds of insects and diseases and require frequent monitoring for health and vigor. During our hot, dry months, spraying down your roses with a strong jet of water can go a long way toward healthy foliage and managing mild infestations of aphids and thrips. Remove any diseased foliage weekly, and if you aren’t cutting your flowers, deadhead any spent blooms by cutting above a set of 5 leaves. Garden roses have specific nutrient needs, and I feed my roses monthly with Dr. Earth’s rose food formulated for roses. This is the only granular fertilizer I use on my farm.

Healthy, productive roses require pruning and a forced dormancy here in Southern California. I prune my roses in late December or January. Do some research as to what kind of rose you are growing as there are a few pruning specifics that can change with the type of rose (I grow Floribundas and Grandifloras on my farm). I use Felco pruners for rose pruning, long sleeves, and thick gloves.  

In general, you’ll want to prune back your plant by one-third and try not to cut lower than your knee, leaving 4 to 7 (or more) strong canes. Make your cuts 45 degrees above an outward facing swollen bud so as not to produce more crossing branches. I always start in the center of the plant, removing any canes growing across the center of the plant. Continue cutting, removing any dead, old, or diseased canes. Remove any suckers and canes thinner than the diameter of a pencil. You want an open plant shaped like a “V” or a bowl when you’re finished pruning. Remove all diseased leaves and foliage. A dormant spray is a good idea for overwintering pests and fungal spores, and there are a variety of OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified products on the market. Add a fresh layer of compost and mulch. 

Lastly, countless books on growing roses can be found at your local library. Plants just want to grow, including roses, so don’t let yourself be paralyzed by your lack of experience or the overwhelming amount of information out there. Plant a rose garden, and I have good faith you will be rewarded with these romantic flowers year after year.