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.


Trip Report: San Francisco Flower and Garden Show

My inner Garden Geek went into overload last weekend at the SF Flower and Garden Show. Held at the San Mateo Event Center, it was a great place for the botanically inclined to go a little crazy. It’s a yearly event, and it’s been a while since I was there last, but I wanted a little garden inspiration. SO….

(Going to the show also makes me think fondly of my dear friend, Joice, who passed away about 3.5 years ago. We had a frightening lot in common, not the least of which were gardening and flower arranging. We went to one of these shows a few years ago, and we both learned that the experienced attendees always brought wagons and shopping carts so that schlepping all the goodies wasn’t so difficult. I thought about Joice, but forgot about the cart!)

Typically at this show, there are a bunch of display gardens, and then a ton of vendors selling stuff to provide adequate retail therapy for any good Garden Geek. Most of the gardens didn’t yield anything unusual, but there were a few standouts:

Many gardeners tend to forget to “go vertical.” I liked this example of hanging mosaics and metalwork.

One of the most colorful gardens there was made by the folks at Ah-Sam Nursery. I love how they used color and height in their garden – it reminded me of Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Bright, happy colors, great use of space.

Garden art is always fun to incorporate in the garden, but all I could think about when I saw this is that it’s just a big cat box with a play toy hanging from the top. Or it could be a raccoon playground. Yes, I live in the ‘burbs.

I couldn’t quite figure this one out: carniverous plants in a deck bench. Just at the right height for the kids and their little fingers.

Edible landscaping was a really big deal this year. If you have an abundance of yardsticks, here’s how to put them to good use! (Don’t laugh, we actually DID have an abundance of them a few years ago, back when we went to Southern Lumber a lot and each time they gave us a free yardstick…)

In terms of individual plants, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw this variegated Rhododendron. I WANT ONE.

And of course, there’s always a place in my heart for kitschy garden art. This little guy bobbed his way into my garden.Now to give him a name: Flashy? Rocky? Mr. Bobblehead? Hm…

I had a really good time, but I think what I enjoyed the most was seeing all of the people there, especially the older folks. I absolutely loved seeing all the elderly folks slowly making their way through the exhibits with their wheelchairs, walkers, and canes, and discussing technical aspects of the gardens with passion! And most of them discussed the different plants using their botanical names. I’m encouraged that when my body completely falls apart, there’s hope that perhaps my brain can still function as a Garden Geek.