Q: How does one care for roses along the Gulf Coast?

A: I fell in love with roses while living near San Francisco almost 50 years ago, when my roots as a gardener were even less developed than those of a bare-root rose. My husband and I, romantic newlyweds, selected sawed-in-half wine barrels from Napa Valley in which to plant peace roses next to our little apartment. With next to no attention, the roses thrived, producing gorgeous yellow roses with a hint of pink along the edges of the petals.

Some were a good 8 inches in diameter when fully open. Alas, that was California, where I would swear our roses were as hardy as the poison ivy in the woods near the house where we now live in Mobile. (Well, maybe I am exaggerating, but they were very hardy.)

It’s no surprise roses, despite their thorns, are America’s most popular garden flower. There are more than 6,000 varieties that bloom from spring until late fall, or even longer if the really cold weather holds off. There is a rose for virtually every gardener’s passion, whether that passion is for spectacular single-specimen plants, masses of color, border plantings or enhancement of fences or trellises.

Roses are classified by their growth habits as either bush roses or climbing roses, and these classifications break down further into more definitive varieties. To choose the rose most suited to your landscaping plan, check the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s ANR-0157, “Growing Roses.” You can pick up a copy of this publication at the Extension Office on Schillinger Road, or download it for free at www.aces.edu. There are even suggestions for specific varieties well suited to the Gulf Coast.

Basic care of your roses requires adequate sunshine, mulch, water and fertilizer, as well as annual pruning.

• Sunshine: Roses love the sun and require a minimum of six hours of full sun each day to thrive.

• Mulch: Apply three to four inches of organic mulch (pine bark, coarse-textured peat, ground corncobs, pine straw and well-rotted straws manure) each year after pruning to help control weeds, conserve moisture and foster fertility. Although you can use landscape fabric under the mulch for greater weed control, black plastic is not recommended.

• Water: Roses are very thirsty. Water in the early morning and avoid wetting the foliage as this can cause the roses to become diseased. Where soil is heavy with clay (as in many places in Mobile), apply one inch of water in a slow stream under the foliage once a week. Seven to eight inches of water should be adequate to percolate through less-dense, non-clay soil and provide adequate moisture to the rose.

• Fertilizer: It is important to have your soil tested. Extension agents can advise you as to soil modification to achieve the correct pH and correct any nutritional deficiencies in your rose bed. Nitrogen and potassium are the elements most often lacking in rose beds, and addition of ammonium nitrate is generally needed in April, May, June and August. Most of the gardeners I know add a healthy sprinkle of Epsom salt to the soil around the outer rim of the roots of their roses when they prune them in February. Fertilizer specifically for roses should be applied monthly during your roses’ growing season.

• Pruning: Pruning is essential to the health of your roses, and sturdy gloves to protect your hands and arms from thorns are essential to your well being. Along the Gulf Coast, the general rule of thumb is to prune your roses on or about Valentine’s Day. Getting rid of dead, damaged or weak branches is how to get started. After that, how you prune will depend on whether you are pruning bush or climbing roses. In general, it is important to use clean, sharp pruners and to cut one-quarter inch above a bud at a 45-degree angle.

For hybrid tea roses, it is advisable to cut all healthy canes back to 12-15 inches above the ground. Cutting to an outside bud will encourage growth away from the center of the plant and allow for greater air circulation. When pruning for exhibition blooms, leave only three or four canes, and prune these canes severely. Prune tree roses in a similar manner, but back to 6 to 8 inches above the crown.

When pruning floribundas and grandifloras, remove diseased, weak and dead growth and any canes growing toward the center of the plant. Remaining canes should be cut back to 18-24 inches above the ground. Floribundas and grandifloras are not pruned as severely as hybrid teas.

In general, old canes on climbing roses should be cut back to the ground after they have flowered in the spring. New canes should be left undisturbed, as these will produce flowers the following spring. However, there are climbing roses that continue to bloom throughout the growing season. On these varieties, the new canes grow out of the old canes rather than from the base of the plant. These roses perform best if pruned to five or six healthy canes. Significant lateral branching should be kept headed back and faded flower clusters should be removed to encourage flowering.

Removal of weak, diseased and dead wood and very light pruning are all that is required for climbing hybrid tea roses.

These are basic guidelines for caring for your roses. Watch for information about pests and diseases common to roses in my next article in the March 3 edition of Lagniappe.