Coming Up Roses

Text by P. Allen Smith | Photos courtesy of P. Allen Smith

I’m a rose fanatic and have planted them extensively in my garden. My love of roses began when I lived in England while doing my graduate work. I became fast friends with Lady Elizabeth Ashbrook, who was crazy about roses and had them all around her estate in Cheshire. So when I came home, I started planting roses at my house in downtown Little Rock. I now have a two-acre rose garden at Moss Mountain Farm dedicated to my friend who taught me so much about these charming flowers.

The peak of rose bloom in my garden occurs around the first week of May. I consider this an unofficial farewell to spring and the beginning of summer. I say goodbye to dogwoods and tulips and hello to daylilies, hydrangeas and, of course, more roses. With the exception of one or two, the roses in my garden are repeat bloomers and will continue to throw out flowers until the first hard freeze in fall.

While most of the varieties are fairly carefree I do have a summer regimen that I follow to keep them in tiptop shape.


I give my roses a healthy dose of fertilizer in the early spring to fortify them for their first flush of bloom. I simply use a fertilizer high in phosphorous, which is the middle number on the package. After the first wave of flowers fades I hit them with a second application of fertilizer formulated especially for roses. This re-energizes the plants and promotes more roses for those that are repeat bloomers. Through the summer I continue to feed my repeat-blooming roses after each bloom cycle.

 Black Spot and Powdery Mildew

The biggest headache when growing roses is black spot and powdery mildew. As the name implies, black spot starts with a black spot on the leaf. It’s a fungus that certainly diminishes the look of the plant. I’ve never had a rose bush actually die from black spot, but it can certainly cut down on their performance and make the shrubs look pretty shabby.

Black spot is usually brought on by weather conditions. Sporadic rain followed by humid to hot conditions is the ideal breeding ground for this fungus. The rain soaks the plant, and then the weather heats up and causes the fungus to form on the damp leaves and petals.

If the problem becomes severe, use a commercial fungicide for black spot; make sure to saturate the plant completely from top to bottom with the spray. Serious black spot cases require several treatments before the fungus is completely annihilated. You should also spray the ground around effected shrubs and put any diseased leaves in the trash, not in your compost.

Powdery mildew reveals itself as a powder-like coating over the leaves. Rarely will this fungus kill a plant, but it can damage perennials, including phlox, and shrubs such as lilacs, crape myrtles and roses. A heavy infestation of powdery mildew can cause a plant to lose its leaves, diminishing its vigor and reducing its flower output.

If you have powdery mildew in your garden there are two approaches you should try to bring the problem under control. The first is prevention. Remove and dispose of infected plants and leaves by burning them or put them in the garbage to help cut down on the spread. Don’t put infected leaves in your compost because you will just harbor spores for another round next season.

The second line of defense is to take action by spraying. Before using a conventional fungicide, try some of the new, safer alternatives. I use a sulfur-based product. Since it’s not a synthetic fungicide, I don’t have to worry about it damaging the environment. Spray your roses every seven to 10 days when mildew is a problem.


The time to do any hard pruning of roses is late winter or early spring before the leaf buds open. Don’t panic if you didn’t get around to cutting back your plants this year, though. They won’t suffer, and once the blooms have faded at the end of spring you will have the opportunity to do some light pruning. Not only will this be a chance to reshape and clean up plants, but with many of the repeat-blooming varieties, it will encourage a second round of flower production.

It’s important to realize that not all roses rebloom. Some old-fashioned shrub types only bloom once in the spring. Cutting the old flowers away on these types will only help the plant look a little better. But for those that rebloom like my favorite ‘New Dawn’ as well as any of the floribundas, polyanthas and popular hybrid tea roses, removing what is left of dead flowers will definitely encourage the next wave of bloom. Always use sharp pruners, making the cut just above a leaf with five leaflets. This will ensure that the stem will be large and strong enough to support new blooms. After pruning I always feed roses with a high-phosphorus liquid fertilizer.

By devoting a little time to care for these beauties, your flower garden will be “coming up roses” all season long.