December is a good month to get weird in the rose garden. The last autumn blossoms have wilted, the foliage has fallen, and park visitors slow to a trickle. Sometimes, after hours without seeing a single biped, the filter that usually separates this gardener’s inner monologue from speech weakens, and the roses become privy to many details of my personal life. They listen well, but they rarely respond. Tiring of their silence, I insert my earbuds and rumba my way onto a ladder to work on the park’s famed arbors. The music syncs with the rhythms of my work, and soon I am seven feet off the ground crooning with abandon. At some point I make out a faint “hey” amid the music. I hear it again, and out the corner of my eye a woman looking up at me breaks my trance, nearly knocking me off the ladder mid-croon.
“Sorry! I was listening to music!” I realize I’m shouting and yank the headphones from my ears.
The woman is bundled against the cold, the hood of her parka obscuring her face. “I was just going to ask what you’re doing up there?’”
“Oh. I’m covering the climbing roses on the arches with evergreen branches.”
“Well, partly because it looks festive. But also because the evergreens protect the plants during winter.”
Which brings me to the topic of this post: protecting roses in winter. A quick Google search yields countless techniques for safeguarding your roses in northern latitudes. The head rosarian at Elizabeth Park, Stephen Scanniello, describes several of them in his book A Year of Roses, including mounding with woodchips (p. 169), building or growing wind barriers (p. 171), wrapping climbers and ramblers (p. 173), and for the most determined rose-growers, the famed “Minnesota Tip” (p. 171). The intention of this post is not to exhaust all the options, but rather to highlight our winter strategy here in the Elizabeth Park rose garden.
The immensity of our garden—2 ½ acres—immediately limits the scope of our protection efforts, which in a way is a good thing because it compels us to grow roses that are naturally well-suited to the Connecticut climate. But even with winter-hardy plants there are still specimens that require protection. For example, even the toughest roses are vulnerable when young; hence, we mound wood chips over specimens that were planted later in the season.
Our most ambitious preparation for winter, however, comes with covering the ramblers that envelop the park’s famed archways. The cultivars that grow on the arches—Excelsa, Dorothy Perkins, and Crimson Rambler—are relatively winter-hardy, but the arbors’ sheer proportions (the larger ones are about 10’ X 12’) require us to preserve as much of the plant as possible in order to encourage good coverage the following season. For this reason, we wrap the arches with fir and spruce branches. Not only do these evergreens put the garden in the holiday mood, but unlike other materials such as hay or soil they repel moisture, reducing the likelihood of spreading fungal diseases. To apply the evergreens, we start at the top, always aiming the branches downward (stems toward the sky), fastening them with jute twine as we work.
A final note about roses and winter: It’s not just cold that threatens rose plants. To be sure, many cultivars are vulnerable to low temperatures. Here in USDA hardiness zone 6b we can’t grow many varieties due to sub-zero lows that occasionally afflict central Connecticut in the depths of winter. But more than the cold, rose growers need to be weary of winter warm spells. A prolonged thaw can provoke a rose to emerge from its dormancy, leaving canes newly swelling with life vulnerable to freeze damage when colder temps return. Other factors that can contribute to winter damage are wind and ice storms. Snow on the other hand can be good for roses as sustained snow cover insulates plants against temperature fluctuations.
To illustrate these principles, look no further than the previous winter, 2017-18, which brought the perfect confluence of unfavorable conditions: A warm fall encouraged plants to produce new growth late in the season. Sub-zero temperatures around New Years’ zapped these tender new canes and knocked less cold-hardy specimens back to the ground. Record highs in February (it hit 73 on February 21st!) started coaxing plants out of dormancy, and late season ice and sleet storms in March and April thumped just about anything left standing. On top of the temperature fluctuations, 2017-18 offered little snow cover to insulate plants against wintry mood swings. By the time pruning season rolled around most of our hybrid teas, floribundas, and grandifloras had to be cut back to the ground to remove winterkill. Even several of our climbers and ramblers had died back to ground level. Fortunately, roses are resilient by nature, and by mid-summer (if not earlier), most specimens had returned to at least knee-level and were producing brilliant new blossoms. And the ones that didn’t return offered us a convenient excuse to dig out old beds and try out some new—and hopefully hardier—cultivars.
Scanniello, S. (2006). A Year of Roses. Nashville, TN: Cool Springs Press.