Julia Child floribunda rose

Beauty or beast?

Roses may be one or the other, depending on the time of year. Now, they’re undeniably the beasts of the garden. Whether already established or about to be purchased, they can look downright pitiful, truly nothing more than a few thorny sticks in the ground.

Yet give them a few months, and they’ll soar right back to the top of the beauty chart. They’ll stay there, pumping out luscious flowers until next winter, at which time they’ll tumble back into beastly land again.

While it may be easy to ignore your roses during their down time, it’s what you do now that will set the stage for how well they perform later in the year.

Act Now

Digging in.

In colder climates, roses go dormant over winter, so it’s easy to cut away on what essentially look like dead plants.

But on the Central Coast, roses often hang on. This year in particular, I’m having a tough time getting motivated to prune my existing roses because most are in the midst of a small — yet still impressive — cycle of bloom.

However, if I don’t rejuvenate the shrubs, they won’t fare well later on. Several years back, a neighbor neglected to prune her Iceberg roses. By mid-summer, the bushes were rangy, lost their vigor and looked plain awful.

Here are the steps to take:

• Strip the leaves, trying to avoid the thorns.

• Cut off old canes that are thicker than your thumb.

• Cut off skinny, new canes that are misshapen or smaller in diameter than a pencil.

• Cut off canes that cross over the middle.

A completed Iceberg rose.

On a hybrid tea, keep pruning until you’re left with three to five canes that flare out from the base. Trim those canes to 18 to 36 inches tall. On a floribunda or grandiflora, keep five to seven canes and cut them 18 to 24 inches tall. Vary the heights to give the bush a more natural look.

After pruning, rake away all dead leaves and detritus. Check your irrigation or rebuild your watering basins. Then apply a fresh layer of mulch an inch or two out from the stems. Wait to apply fertilizer until you see about 3 inches of new growth, which will probably be toward the end of March.

Cut just above outward growth.

Regardless of the type of rose, make sure your cuts are just above outward-facing buds.

This stimulates new branches to grow out from the center. Sunlight can then penetrate the crown, which encourages more buds to break dormancy, which improves flowering.

New Roses

While roses can be planted just about any time of year on the Central Coast, bare-root season provides the least expensive plants and the greatest selection.

It’s also when new roses make their debuts.

Dick Clark grandiflora rose

Walking on Sunshine floribunda rose

Topping the must-haves for 2011 are two All-America Rose Selections winners, Dick Clark and Walking on Sunshine. While plenty of growers tout “best of 2011” plants, the AARS program merits consideration because the nonprofit association tests roses in 23 gardens across the country for two years before naming winners that are easy to grow and offer disease resistance, vigor and at least a little fragrance.

Dick Clark is a medium-tall grandiflora that bears double, classically formed bi-colored flowers in cherry red and creamy white on tall, upright stems. The flowers are quite similar to Double Delight, a phenomenally popular — and fragrant — hybrid tea introduced in 1977. But Double Delight hasn’t been particularly disease resistant. If Dick Clark proves stronger, it may become a serious rival.

I tried Dick Clark in my own garden last year. The flowers were lovely. But the bush had two strikes against it: the bed was too shady and the snails adored it. This month I’ll be transplanting it to a sunnier bed and plan to sprinkle Sluggo — a nontoxic snail bait — more frequently.

Dick Clark was hybridized by Tom Carruth and Christian Bedard and introduced by Weeks Roses.

Walking on Sunshine is a 4-foot tall floribunda that bears clusters of three to five bright yellow flowers on stems 16 to 20 inches tall. I haven’t seen the round, full flowers in real life yet, but they’re said to fade to a lighter yellow, providing a multi-toned look.

Walking on Sunshine was hybridized by Keith Zary and introduced by Jackson & Perkins Wholesale.

Susan Williams-Ellis shrub rose

Other notable new roses include five English roses from David Austin Roses. All are modern varieties that improve on the style and fragrance of antique roses.

Susan Williams-Ellis bears pure-white pompom flowers with an impressive 135 petals per flower.

Kew Gardens shrub rose

Kew Gardens also blooms in white. But with only five petals per flower, it looks much like a wild rose, with its yellow centers fully exposed.

The Wedgwood Rose blooms in soft pink, and sends out long, arching canes best corralled on a trellis or wall.

Tam o’Shanter bears deep pink flowers on long, arching branches as well.

Tam o'Shanter

Lady of Shalott bears plump, cup-shaped apricot flowers.

Still more 2011 introductions to look for include Adobe Sunrise, a compact floribunda that bears fully double, salmon-orange flowers hybridized by Meilland International.

Lady of Shalott

Pink Home Run is an entirely disease resistant shrub rose that blooms continuously. If it’s anything like its parent, the deep red-blooming Home Run, you won’t even need to dead head it. It was hybridized by Tom Carruth and Christian Bedard.

And Icy Drift, also hybridized by Meilland International, is an abundant-blooming, spreading plant that bears clusters of small, 3/4″ to 1 1/2″ white, double flowers from spring until frost.

Choosing New Roses

The Wedgewood Rose

From a practical standpoint, disease resistance and growth habit are the most important considerations when selecting new roses. By paying attention to both, you’ll save yourself a lot of grief in the long run.

However, those concepts are often forgotten when browsing all the different and beautiful flower colors and styles. But when narrowing your selections, do try to bring those factors back into play.

Equally important is the quality of the roots. On a bare-root rose, the roots should spread out evenly from the stem and have some flex. If they’re shriveled, brittle or extremely lopsided, choose another plant.

Seeds of Wisdom

If you can’t plant your bare-root roses right away, keep their roots moist by placing them in a plastic bag with damp paper towels, sawdust, sand or mulch, then loosely tie the bag to the base of the stem.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.