From the Grounds Up: The secret to growing roses in the desert

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

By Drew Kerr
Grounds Superintendent

“You’ve got to stop and smell the roses” – Mac Davis

For those of us over 40, the above lyric might be a reminder of long car trips in the family station wagon with the Mac Davis tune playing from the 8-track tape. The point of the quote is not to reminisce about the groovy 1970’s, but to highlight our rose garden taking a turn for the better this year. Some of the challenges that we face with growing roses in a desert environment are obviously the heat, but the cold weather can present challenges, too.

Roses experience winter dormancy and are usually cut very low prior to the onset of frost. Because of tremendous popularity of Sunnylands during the winter months, we don’t cut our roses down in early January (which is the normal practice) in order to provide a good experience for our guests. The winter dormancy can cause the leaves of our roses to yellow and brown. Additionally, the roses can experience a sort of dormancy in the extreme heat and will also experience a plethora of ugly yellow and brown leaves.

In order to counteract the heat, we have stopped deadheading the flowers after we close in early June. This allows the development of rose hips and diverts the energy normally used to produce new flowers into other parts of the plant. We also feed the roses every three weeks with the addition of mulch in the summer months below the rose bushes to keep the soil moist.

The prescription to counteract winter dormancy is to cut the roses as low as possible in early September before we open for the season. This allows the roses to undergo their normal process of renewal and still allows our guests to see full-size rose bushes for the entire season. We remove the mulch during the cool weather, because the mulch can promote a healthy home for pests in winter. We have also committed to watering the roses by hand in order to wash the plants on a weekly basis. An additional benefit of the weekly watering is to apply a blast of water to any pests observed on the leaves, such as spider mites and aphids.

The real secret to our healthier roses has been our fertilizer with the addition of microbes. We have been on a repeated regimen of adding beneficial bacteria to our soil. Our soil consists of coarse sand and normally lacks beneficial microbes that are useful to aid the plant roots in the uptake of nutrients. Therefore, we are growing better roses, because we are promoting healthier soils.

The Grounds crew considers it a privilege to be a part of the grand vision of Sunnylands and we will continue to provide a venue for world leaders to meet in a beautiful environment. Hopefully our guests have been able to utilize the rose garden as a backdrop for meaningful discussion.