Rooting roses takes a few snips – and courage

An economical way to have more rosebushes.

Fragrant blossoms: Red roses bloom in Silver Spring, Md.
Propagation: Propagating roses starts with sharp pruning shears.

Spring comes early to my garden in California: Cherry blossoms, freesias, and crocus begin to bloom in January.

But in May, when the roses bloom, my garden explodes into a mass of color – gold, coral, pink, magenta, cerise, and lilac. Mingled scents of peach, honey, lemon, raspberry, and cloves rise under the warm sun. All toil is forgotten, and I am in love.

Over the years, I have single-handedly transformed my boring hillside terraces into a resplendent rose garden. I researched and picked out roses with romantic names – Reve D’Or, Autumn Damask, and Reine des Violettes. I dug each hole, erected arbors, trained, fed, and pruned them.

Of the 50 roses in my garden, more than half are heirloom or antique roses with an ancestral lineage dating back to the 18th or 19th century.  The oldest one – Old Blush, a pink China rose with a soft, fruity perfume – was introduced in 1759.

I never imagined having to leave behind my beloved heirloom rose collection, but now, after 25 years of living in our Berkeley, Calif., home, my husband and I will be moving. These roses are like my children, and I am determined to take them with me.

How movable is a garden? I could dig up some of the most treasured roses. But then I envisioned the new owners of our property left with a moonscape of craters in the backyard. So I decided instead to make cuttings of my favorite roses or, in certain varieties, divide them through their underground runners.

The cooler months, from November through February, are perfect times to take cuttings in my part of California. (For the best time in your area, check with your county Extension Service. In cold climates, summer is often an excellent time.)

When the rose gardener is pruning and thinning rosebushes, instead of tossing out removed branches, they can become cuttings that will be the basis of new plants.

All you need is a sharp knife or pruning shears, potting soil, rooting hormone, and courage.
At first, propagating roses was intimidating to me. Although my local nursery offered winter classes on rose pruning and propagation, I’d never taken one.

But now, desperate, I searched on the Internet for “rose propagation,” and taught myself how to do it by following step-by-step instructions.

My favorite was a slide demonstration on the Vintage Gardens site because it showed me exactly how to make the cuts with my pruning shears. I also learned tips from and details from The Southern Garden site.

Heirloom roses are great for propagating. Not only are they beautiful, fragrant, reliable, and hearty, but unlike most modern roses, they’re no longer under patent (which lasts 17 years from introduction).

To begin my propagation adventure, I picked out one of my favorite roses, Rose de Rescht – which has the most beautiful deep purple pompons – and set about multiplying it.

Rose de Rescht sends out underground runners or suckers, which pop up about a foot from the original plant. There were several of these offspring near the base of the original rosebush. So I dug around in the dirt and followed the runner back to the mother plant. I cut it from the bush and into  three pieces.

Then I placed the cuttings in pots of soil, fed them with rooting hormone, and, to keep the cuttings humid, covered the pots with little hats formed out of plastic produce bags.

“Now I have three little Rose de Rescht babies,” I told a friend, proud as a new mother.

“It sounds like you spent the weekend in a maternity ward rather than in your garden,” she replied.

In my new home I’ll once again dig holes, feed, and train heirloom roses, some of which will be direct descendants from my former garden.

On moving day, as I turn over the keys to the new owners, I’ll no doubt  feel like a mother dropping her children off at camp for the summer – overly eager to offer detailed advice and warnings, and give them my cellphone number and e-mail address.

But I’ll walk away knowing I’m leaving the new residents a beautiful gift, one I hope they’ll appreciate in May when the garden explodes with color and the air is laden with the perfume of roses.

Web resources for rose propagators
The Vintage Gardens,
Garden Guides,
The Southern Garden,

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