Roses in the Drought

As California enters its 4th year of drought, we will be living under mandatory state water restrictions — the first ever for the state.  The restrictions will affect mostly urban areas, and therefore what happens in the garden.  

Roses in the Drought was also the topic of a talk I attended a while ago, before the restrictions were established. It was a very timely presentation by Jolene Adams, the current president of the American Rose Society. She was speaking at my local Public Library.  What she presented was not only valid for roses, but for most plants when water supply is very limited.

When dealing with drought, you are dealing with water stress in the plant. You want to reduce the water loss of your plants and increase the efficiency of their water uptake. When water is limited, plants do not have the energy to sustain normal growing so you should expect less than stellar results, but you will still able to keep your plants alive while they are waiting for better (and wetter) days.

I always learn (or re-learn) a lot during this type of presentation.  For me it was the concept of layered composting that most avid organic gardeners are very aware of. The use of compost helps a lot in drought by helping the development of the mycorrhizae fungi which are the biggest factor in water conservation in soils. 

When composting, you can achieve the best results when you alternate a nitrogen layer (food and waste) with a carbon layer (paper, egg cartons, dry leaves, etc.). Since the nitrogen layer tends to release unsavory smells, covering it with a carbon layer reduces the effect to almost nothing. This is very important in an urban environment where your neighbors may not appreciate your efforts otherwise.

Some of the other tips are below (and are not just for roses):

Water deep, slowly and infrequently.

This helps develop a strong and deep root system that will take up water more efficiently.  If you cannot use drip irrigation, try to spot water as much as possible and keep the water close to your plants.

Large plants will need more water than small ones.

So climbing roses will need more water than Hybrid Tea roses which will in turn require more water than Miniature roses.

Water early in the morning.

This is a key point. Plants will uptake the water more efficiently, and it will reduce the chance of diseases. Evening watering results in water sitting on the leaves, which together with darkness and the cooler overnight temperatures creates the perfect conditions for fungal diseases such as mildews and rust.

Use mulch.

Lots of mulch.  Mulch helps with water retention, reduces evaporation, and when it decomposes naturally over time, it increases the number of micorrhizae (see above).

Quit feeding.

Feeding increases plant growth and therefore the use of water. Also too much feeding with too little water can result in salt build up in the soil. You can feed in early spring, but should quit as soon as water availability is reduced.

Get rid of weeds.

Weeds are usually adapted to the climate and are very efficient at taking resources away from plants. By removing them, you leave more water available for the plants you want to keep. It is also good exercise.

If the situation gets extreme and your community implements drastic water regulations, you can use wastewater from cooking or showers, etc.  The chart below illustrates how we typically use water at home.  There is a good possibility that you can reuse some of it to water your plants if needed.

Well-established plants need less water than newly planted ones.

Nobody really knows how much water a rose needs — I have heard they can use up to 10 gallons per week in peak summer, but then again it will depend on the type of rose, if it is grafted or own root, how good or poor the soil is, etc.  However, there is anecdotal evidence that suggests some roses are more tolerant to water stress, including The Knock Out® Rose. Keep in mind though, that they are not succulents and will need watering once in a while to keep blooming.

There is a lot of work being done these days on how to increase drought tolerance of roses, but the results will probably take years, if not decades, until they are available for your garden. So the final advice when you are dealing with roses during a drought: use common sense!

My sincere thanks to Jolene Adams for giving me the idea and most of the information for this post.

VP of License and New Business Development at Star® Roses and Plants

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