Organic rose care demystified in new book by UCSC Garden Manager Orin Martin

Master gardener Orin Martin cuts a lush bouquet of fresh, organically grown garden roses for his eldest daughter each year on her birthday. What's unusual is that she was born November 9. Better yet, when Martin sits down to Thanksgiving dinner, a rose-based bouquet often adorns his table.

Impossible, you say? Not so, replies Martin, manager of the celebrated Alan Chadwick Garden at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "Roses require a little bit of attention every day, and for that, they'll reward you with a spectacular bloom in April, a mini-spring in August and September, and blossoms into November and December, depending on the weather," said Martin.

After years of perfecting the art of organic rose care, Martin shares his expertise with the rest of us in the new book, A Rose Primer: An Organic Approach to Rose Selection and Care (Santa Cruz, CA: Friends of the UCSC Farm & Garden and the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems).

The book spells out the steps to success in a year-round guide to the care and feeding of organically grown roses, and includes Martin's tips regarding selection, sources, and planting, as well. Each section ends with a handy "In a Nutshell" summary for busy gardeners. Though focused on rose-growing on the Central Coast, the book is filled with principles that carry over to rose cultivation in other areas.

"People think of roses as requiring lots of chemicals, but really what they need is care. If you have five minutes a day, you can do it," said Martin. "Roses are resilient. With good care, you can turn them around in a matter of weeks during the growing season."

Success lies in a program of pruning, fertility, and disease control, according to Martin.

. Pruning--Winter pruning is performed during January's brief period of dormancy to stimulate growth. Counterintuitively, the more you prune, the more growth you'll get. Heavy pruning is followed by "fingerpruning" in February and March to control new growth and shape the plant.

. Fertility--Winter pruning should be followed with a liberal two-inch layer of organic compost, topped by an inch of mulch to control weeds and hold moisture.

. Disease control--Following the winter pruning, a light spray of dormant petroleum oil will combat insects and lime sulfur will reduce fungus. Using both produces a synergistic effect and requires one-third less product, noted Martin. "If you do nothing else with your roses, prune them hard in the winter and use these sprays in tandem," said Martin.

Other rose necessities include good drainage, regular water, and tidy surroundings. "Remove spent blooms and any diseased foliage promptly, and keep the soil at the base of your roses free of leaves, which are disease vectors," urged Martin. After the first bloom, apply more compost and a granular organic fertilizer, followed by a deep watering, and you'll be rewarded in a matter of weeks. "Roses are cyclical, with a four- to eight-week hiatus between blooms," said Martin. "When you cut a spent flower, it prompts the plant to create a new bud. As my grandmother always said, with roses, you've got to take to get."


Editor's Note: A Rose Primer: An Organic Approach to Rose Selection and Care is a 40-page, spiral-bound guide available for $10 from the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS). To order, send $10, plus $2 for shipping and handling, to Rose Book, c/o CASFS, UC Santa Cruz, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064. Checks should be made payable to UC Regents. For more information, visit or call (831) 459-3240.