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Mulching Roses
by Karah Stokes

The Peggy Martin rose is one tough rose. The original rose survived two weeks under water after Hurricane Katrina.

Mulch is the answer. Once you have found and planted own-root roses that will thrive in your area, don’t worry about fertilizing them. Rather than applying fertilizer, I recommend applying a lot of mulch and plan on watering during dry spells. But, since mulch keeps the soil moist, the more mulch you apply, the less supplemental water your roses will need.

I would not believe this if I had not seen it in my own yard. Mulching with organic material that breaks down over time feeds your plants more gently and gradually improves the health of your soil – rather than spurring green growth in sudden bursts.

When we first had a yard in which to garden, we used fish emulsion, rotted horse manure and other natural fertilizers on our flowerbeds. These fertilizers spurred our plants to grow with extra enthusiasm. But soon we redirected our energy to mulching very generously with leaves we collected every fall.

I noticed that once we stopped fertilizing and started mulching more, we saw less frenzied green growth in the spring, but we also saw fewer aphids. I believe the more moderate growth attracts fewer pests, because it is not quite as unnaturally juicy and enticing to bugs.

Mulching with leaves is ideal because they’re easy to get, but you can also use pine bark. If you’re buying pine bark mulch, get bark that is ground into the smallest, softest pieces you can find. Roses prefer slightly acid soil, so pine needles or coffee grounds are OK, too. Leave cedar or hardwood mulch alone – in my experience, it doesn’t break down quickly enough to enrich the soil.

Blooms of hybrid perpetual rose ‘Reine des Violettes’ are a dusky violet and highly fragrant.

The pendant flowers of climber ‘Rêve d’Or’ look down from atop an arch.

The tough, thornless hybrid musk ‘Nur Mahal’ fights it out with raspberries in a partially shady corner of the backyard.

Pale yellow Texas Pioneer rose ‘Stephen F. Austin’ positively glows in the landscape.

Where to get leaves

In my town, every fall, folks rake the leaves off their lawns, bag them up and set them on the curb for pickup. My husband and I note their location, and after it gets dark, we drive up, leap out like a two-person Chinese fire drill, load the bags into the car and speed away into the night. We feel like we’re getting something for nothing.

Leaf mulch is free, feeds your plants at a steady, constant rate as the earthworms and bacteria turn it into soft dirt, and it also looks good as it breaks down. Mulch that rots slowly sits on top of the soil instead of becoming humus ASAP, which is what you want. Plus, slowly decaying mulch bleaches out and looks terrible.

What kind of leaves to use

Get the mulch that will break down the fastest. You want whatever organic matter you are mulching with to break down into the soil sooner rather than later. I prefer soft leaves such as hackberry or maple leaves to tougher leaves such as magnolia. 

When to apply mulch

Mulch your roses whenever you have the mulch and the time. You can spread leaves over the flowerbeds as soon as you get them, or you can go according to the book and wait until the first hard frost forces the plants into dormancy. I’ve tried mulching both before and after the first hard frost, and I’ve never noticed that much difference.

How much mulch to apply

Apply as much mulch as you can haul without throwing your back out. You can mulch trees too deeply, but you can’t do that with roses, so pile on as much as you can get. Soft vegetable matter will compact quickly as it breaks down anyway.


Because I prefer own-root roses, I get most of my roses by mail. Here are my favorite sources, all locally owned businesses:

  • Antique Rose Emporium:
  • Heirloom Garden Roses:
  • I also have visited and bought a rose from Petals From the Past, near Birmingham, Ala. They do sell online through their website, The folks who work here know all about roses, and it has an awesome selection of old, tough roses.

To read about roses

  • Worldwide aficionados of old (and therefore likely to be disease-resistant) roses. Links to articles and newsletters.
  • Texas fans of tough old rose varieties. Lots of good links.
  • This fellow’s Central Texas rose garden is no longer open, but his super-informative website lives on. The page titled “Confessions of a Rose Rustler” is hilarious.

From State-by-State Gardening June 2014. Photos courtesy of Karen Stokes.

Posted June 2014


Karah Stokes, Ph.D., has gardened for 15 years, and her blog, The Lazy Organic Rose Gardener, shares what she has learned from growing roses organically. She teaches college writing and literature.



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