Rose Gardening During Drought



garden1Roses aren’t just mere pretty flowers to me. Growing roses has been a wonderful hobby of mine since I used to help my father in his Maryland garden when I was a kid. When I moved to California and we bought our house, I inherited 12 rose bushes. My rose garden has changed a lot over the years; it’s moved around to various places in the yard, it’s contained as many as 100 rose bushes of varying types, and it has seen ebbs and flows in terms of how much care it has received from me. Growing roses has been a great hobby for me and it has allowed me to become friends with a lot of folks that I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. But now growing them is a significant challenge due to the severe drought here in California.

I used to be a fairly serious rose exhibitor. I haven’t been as involved for the past few years, and the drought has convinced me that I really don’t NEED to exhibit. (My competitive juices have waned anyway.) I enjoy helping other people exhibit far more than I feel the need to do so myself. In order to be a successful exhibitor, you need to START with very well hydrated roses. You simply won’t get quality, sizeable blooms otherwise. But just because I don’t feel like exhibiting doesn’t mean I don’t still want a nice rose garden.




Roses are by nature water hogs. Ideally, they like to get about 1″ (or roughly 5-6 gallons) of water per large bush per week. They’re not exactly drought tolerant. But I’m not willing to give up my beloved hobby because of the drought. There are things that I can do to mitigate the effects of reduced water.

I had a plan, way back in January, of how I would deal with possible water rationing in my yard. I implemented a few of these ideas, and others have just not happened (despite my best intentions). But here’s the original plan:

  • Change the goal of having exhibition-quality blooms to keeping the bushes alive.
  • Cut back on fertilizer, to reduce the quantity of blooms and new growth. (The reality this year: I didn’t fertilize AT ALL.)
  • Cut back on water 20% (which is what Governor Brown requested all Californians to do across the board).
  • Mulch heavily. (This year’s reality: the front yard is heavily mulched (thanks to my fantastic neighbor who needed to get rid of the remnants of a huge pine tree – and HE spread the mulch for me! The back yard has some mulch left from when I last added some a few years ago, but really needs a lot more. It’s high on my To Do list, although I may end up waiting for the Labor Day sales at the garden centers.)
  • Don’t cut back the spent blooms so severely. This was a suggestion from American Rose Society President, Jolene Adams, when she spoke about drought at a meeting of the Santa Clara County Rose Society. Cutting each cane back far down the cane just makes the rose want to produce a lot of new growth, which requires a lot of water. (This year, I have not deadheaded on any consistent basis, and many of the roses have formed hips. While I have had reduced quantities of blooms on each bush, the plants are still alive and fairly healthy.
  • Don’t plant anything new. It’s easier to keep an established rose alive with reduced water than trying to introduce a new baby into the mix. New roses need extra TLC, and I’m not giving any of that this year.
  • Use an antitranspirant. Some friends of mine have used antitranspirants (like Cloud Cover) successfully in reducing disease in their garden. They have even been able to exhibit roses, since the concentration of antitranspirant they use is extremely low (*I can’t remember the exact percentage they use, it’s either 1% or 5% I think.*). (This year’s reality: I had planned to use about a 25-30% solution of antitranspirant in water since I wasn’t going to exhibit – you can’t use that high a concentration without having it show on the rose foliage, and your entry could be disqualified for having a “foreign substance” on it. I got as far as purchasing the antitranspirant. Maybe next year…)

Careful irrigation is another key to drought gardening. Even though there isn’t a whole lot of existing mulch left in my back rose garden, the roses are still doing well because I have a very reliable Netafim drip irrigation system there. Netafim is basically like using a soaker hose, so when you don’t have emitters that can clog, the maintenance is minimal. Putting in the Netafim system a bunch of years ago was the smartest thing I ever did, since I used to lose a few roses each summer due to clogged emitters in my old system.

The front rose garden (which only has about 10 roses, half of which are miniatures) has not fared quite as well because it still has the old emitter-based irrigation. As a result, a couple of roses are suffering because of clogged/damaged emitters that I didn’t catch for a while.  I have some surgery to do on that system ASAP. Have I mentioned how much I detest dealing with irrigation issues?

I made a conscious decision to sacrifice blooms this year in order to keep the roses alive. (I also let part of my lawn die so that any available water could go to the roses. If the drought worsens, the rest of the lawn is going. I know where my priorities lie.)

I’m hoping that this winter we will have an El Niño, and our reservoirs will fill up again. But I’m not going to bank on it. I am researching rain barrels and other types of water storage so that perhaps I can mitigate the high water bills that roses induce. And there’s also the usual water conservation tasks to implement, like catching the warm-up water from the shower in a bucket and then using that on the landscaping. Or catching the rinse water from washing vegetables and taking that out to the garden. Lots to think about, lots to try to implement. But letting the roses die is simply not an option.


The Homeowner’s Lament…

Oh irrigation system, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways:

You clog in ways that make no sense.

You leak in areas I can’t even get to.

Your emitters break at the drop of a hat.

You surprise me with increased water bills, even when I check to make sure that everything is running “properly.”

Your tubing is nonstandard, and therefore a pain in the neck to replace.

Your pop-up sprinklers may pop up but not actually disperse water.

Or they may not even pop up at all.

Because I depend on you so much (since we don’t get rain for 6 months out of the year), I can’t just move plants around as I see fit. I have to move YOU around too.

You are unfortunately an all-too-necessary bane of my existence.

I had already come to grips with the all the home maintenance issues I need to deal with and haven’t until now (thank goodness for a contractor across the street). Soon we will replace an exterior door and part of a wall (termite/water damage, anyone?), replace all the electrically-connected smoke detectors (they are long out of warranty), finish installing a new screen door, and a few other  items around the house. I’d prepared myself for that. It’s frustrating that we’ve reached the point in our lives where household repairs aren’t nearly as easy for us as they used to be (and some things I could never do, like deal with electrical stuff). So now we get to hire more people. I suppose I could rationalize that we’ve paid our dues when we were younger and took care of all sorts of stuff ourselves, so now we’ve earned the opportunity to be able to hire others to do the difficult stuff. Sure I can. But it almost feels a little like defeat. Heck, and because I’m shrinking, I even have more trouble getting the filters out of the heat/air conditioning registers in the house because they are well over my head.

But I’d accepted all those things. And then I heard a little too much water from the irrigation system this morning. So I figured I’d better do a run-through of the yard and see what was wrong. I should have stayed in the kitchen.

There are approximately 5 leaks in the front yard. This means I have to dig up the yard in the wrongfully-wet spots just to see if I can figure out how to fix it. (Did I mention how much I hate dealing with irrigation issues?)

Then there’s the lawn sprinklers. Fortunately they are mostly ok, but one pop-up doesn’t dispense any water. I am guessing it’s clogged; I have to figure out how to take it apart, clean it out, and put it back together again. But there’s one zone of pop-ups that doesn’t even come ON, and yet I can hear water running. Oh joy and delight.

There are two areas of the yard where I can’t even see what the irrigation is doing. I’d pretty much have to hack plants back and dig around just to see if all is well. That’s going to get done LAST.

So much for my trying to plan for some landscaping upgrades. I had so hoped that come October (when the rains come), I’d be able to fix up one corner of the yard where I have a tree and a garden bench, and the edging along the lawn where I have some overgrown plants. Maybe in December. Maybe next year.

Maybe I’ll just go watch the football game.