Wake up and smell the roses

'John Davis' climbing rose   Sharon Brogan/Flickr

'John Davis' climbing rose   Sharon Brogan/Flickr

Here in mid-February you may feel that the new garden season is still a distant prospect, but there is one purchase you won’t want to put off much longer. It’s time to wake up and buy some roses.

I’m talking about roses for your gardens and trellises, your borders and beds. Roses spilling over the fence or climbing the porch posts. Those roses. Yes, before your florist roses from Valentine’s Day fade to black, let them inspire a little shopping.  

Unless you plan to limit yourself to the varieties available locally, you’ll be ordering your new roses through the mail. The most common way they are shipped is bare root, meaning they arrive dormant with their roots merely packed in loose material and not potted up in soil.

Unlike most of the new goodies you buy for the garden, bare root plants should really go into the ground before they leaf out.

That’s March in our area — March, kids. So there's really no time to waste unless you plan to court disappointment by learning that the old shrub rose or new hybrid tea you crave is already sold out.

Many newer gardeners shy away from bare root stock, preferring the more ordinary scheme of things where roots and shoots are already in place. Truly, the first time you open a box of bare root material, you will examine the dead-looking sticks and wonder why you wasted your money.

Roses are particularly unlovely in this state, their thorny canes hacked to stubs and their lower extremities looking even worse. It's hard to imagine that these ugly ducklings could possibly transform themselves into luxuriant swans weighed down with brilliant blooms, but the potential is there.

There's no need to shy away from bare root stock providing you understand how to handle it. I've planted perhaps two dozen bare root roses, and only one failed. This turned out to be a fault of handling on the supplier's end as we finally determined after a lively and protracted e-mail correspondence.

The critical factor to keep in mind is that dormant roses experience two kinds of "sleep," above and below. The roots don't wake all that readily, while the leaf buds respond to the smallest bit of warmth and light — which is why suppliers keep them in climate-controlled refrigeration.

ProBuild Garden Center/Flickr

ProBuild Garden Center/Flickr

If buds start to emerge before there is sufficient root mass to supply water and nutrients, your promising new shoots will sputter and fail, and you will be left with a dead rose and a defeated feeling. On the other hand, if you bravely plant while air temperatures still have you in jackets and gloves, the roots will emerge before top growth starts, and all will be well.

Roots need about a month to establish themselves, so you want them in the ground as soon as you get your hands on them and can dig in the dirt. When April showers and spring warmth arrives, leaves will follow in due course with all the underground support they require.

The choices in bare root stock are two-fold: Roses grown from cuttings on their own roots and grafted roses where the cultivar you want is fused to a different root stock entirely. The former are thought to be hardier but the latter are far more common.

You can see the graft — the union is a roundish bump on the main trunk just above the branching roots. When you plant, this bump should be 3 to 5 inches below the soil surface to encourage the top canes to produce some roots of their own.

One thing to remember about grafted roses is that a weak graft can fail and the more vigorous bottom stock can take over. Any shoots or canes emerging below the graft bump should be pruned to fend off this hostile takeover.

When your roses arrive, you shouldn't coddle them by bringing them inside for reasons that should now be obvious — you need to keep those puppies dormant. If you can't plant them right away for some reason, you should "heel them in," that is, lay them in a trench outdoors at a 45 degree angle, burying the roots and graft union with soil or compost and covering the canes with loose stuff like straw or leaves.

Laying them at an angle makes it easier to gently pry them up with a garden fork when you go to plant them. Bear in mind that this is a temporary measure and the plants shouldn't be left there until shoots emerge or you'll have a very funny-looking, sideways-growing rose.

Before you heel in or plant, soak the roots in a bucket of water for several hours to rehydrate them. Alternately, Barbara Wilde, author of "Growing Roses Organically" (Rodale Press, 2002) recommends an old French technique with a name even cooler than heeling in: pralinage.

This involves giving the roots a mud bath in a slurry of equal parts garden soil and cow manure. The coating protects roots from drying out and gives new roots a boost of nutrients — plus you can go around saying your new French word (pronounced PRAY-lin-AHj), impressing the hell out of less worldly gardeners.

It's time to get those orders in and prepare for one of the first gardening acts of 2017. Get the techniques down and you'll never fear bare root again.