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THE FULL SCOOP ABOUT FERTILIZERS -
WHAT YOUR ROSES REALLY NEED
by Nanette Londeree, Master Rosarian

Giving your roses a high quality environment and balanced nutrition can result in robust plants that produce lots of healthy foliage, an abundance of blooms, and an enhanced ability to resist attack from pests and disease. It doesn’t have to be a lot of hard work, complicated or involve a truckload of chemicals. Consider those old roses flourishing in cemeteries or abandoned gardens that continue to grow and bloom with no human intervention – they almost seem to thrive on neglect! Compared to those survivors, our modern roses are really pampered; in return, they provide us with gorgeous flowers for much of the year. So, what are the absolute minimum things roses need?

They’re actually pretty simple – begin with a healthy specimen of a well-chosen rose variety, and plant it in a sunny location that gets at least 6 hours of sun a day. Locate the rose where it doesn’t have to compete with other plants’ roots and has reasonable protection from wind and surfaces that radiate a lot of heat. Plant it in soil that has good drainage. Keep the rose watered, appropriate for weather conditions and type of soil. Deadhead spent blooms to stimulate flower production, and prune to encourage new growth and blooming. That’s all you really NEED to do. To promote more vigorous growth and abundant bloom you can feed them, mulch to keep weeds down and conserve water, and protect them from pests and disease.

Fertilizing plants is desirable to provide nutrients essential for optimum growth at the time they are needed. Even if you’re lucky enough to start with great garden soil, as your plants grow, they absorb nutrients and leave the soil less fertile. By fertilizing, you replenish lost nutrients and ensure that plants have what they need to flourish. If and how you fertilize your roses depends on what you want from them. If you’re an active exhibitor, you’re likely to have a more intensive fertilization program to pump out that Queen of Show bloom than if you’re simply looking for lovely flowers to grace your garden. No matter what you’re after, providing your plants with their nutritional needs starts with the soil. What you see going on with your roses above the ground is largely determined by what goes on below your feet (the top 4 – 8 inches of soil is where plants mostly get their nutrients). No matter how much you baby your plants, if the soil isn’t functional and healthy, it won’t matter much. A golden rule of gardening says, "If you treat your soil well, it will treat your plants well."

How About Alfalfa?
Alfalfa is not just for rabbits! In addition to the organics and minerals in alfalfa that are great for feeding the soil (NPK ratio 3-1-2), the tonic that roses really go for is triacontanol, a naturally occurring fatty alcohol produced as the alfalfa breaks down. It’s a growth stimulant, so when it reaches the roses roots, it can trigger new growth at the bud union or base of the plant, in addition to increasing overall plant vigor and flower production. You can use meal or pellets. Before you purchase, confirm that the product doesn’t contain any molasses, sugar or other additives. You don’t need these other ingredients, and they’ll cost you more.

Have you ever seen fluffy, chocolate brown dirt that’s so light and workable, you can sink your hand into it up to your elbow? It’s the stuff that gardening dreams are made of. Most likely, the native soil didn’t look like that and the owner of the enviable stuff has been working at creating it for a long time. That ideal soil would be made up of 45% minerals (sand, clay, silt), 5 % organic (plant and animal) material, 25% air and 25% water. The mineral portion would be loam (20 – 30% clay, 30 – 50% silt and 30 – 50% sand). It would be crumbly, relatively dark in color, smell earthy and rich, team with microorganisms and earthworms, have plenty of nutrients and a pH between 6.5 and 7.5. How does your soil compare to this ideal? If it doesn’t quite measure up, you may want to add materials to improve it. That’s where amendments, conditioners, enrichments and mulches can play a role – all of them can be considered, depending on the materials used, a fertilizer.

What is your soil texture?
Soil Diagram

Fill a glass container about two-thirds full of water, and add enough dry, crumbled soil to almost fill the container. Add a lid and shake vigorously for a few minutes, then set it aside for a day or two until the solids have settled out. Sand will settle to the bottom, then silt, and clay will be the top layer. Determine the approximate percentage of each major layer; find your approximate percentage on each side of the triangle to the right, then move towards the center of the triangle and find where the three percentages meet. That will identify your type of soil.

Before you start piling on soil conditioner, Epsom salts, fish emulsion or other fertilizers, it’s important to understand your current soil and conditions – otherwise you may just be wasting your time and money. The main things you want to know about your soil are the texture, structure, pH and drainage. Texture is the proportion of sand, silt and clay particles that make it up. The structure relates to how the particles are held together, or clump together into crumbs or clods. The pH is how acidic or basic the soil is, and drainage – whether water drains freely from the soil, sits stubbornly in place or somewhere in between. Each of these can play a key role in the health of the soil and its effective delivery of needed nutrients to your roses.

A simple physical test can help you figure out your soil texture, you can purchase an inexpensive pH test kit to confirm the soil’s pH, and drainage is easy to evaluate – just dig a hole, fill it with water and time how long it take drain completely. Once you’re equipped with this information, you’ll be able to determine what you may want to change or improve in your soil, what, when and how much you’ll need of the desired material to do so, and how to do it. We’ll be covering those subjects and more in coming issues.

Soil diagram courtesy of http://wakefieldsoil.blogspot.com


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Last Modified: 08/06/2013