Growing Roses – Don’t Kill Them With Kindness

Picture this: You enjoy growing roses and one of your beautiful rose plants is starting to turn up its heels. The leaves have been yellowing and falling and the shoots are starting to die off.

You don’t know what could be the problem. You give it a good watering every few days, but it doesn’t seem to be helping – in fact the rose plant just keeps looking worse.

It is often at this stage that you think maybe it needs some fertilizer. So you go get some rose food and spread that generously around the base of the plant. STOP. This is the worst thing you could do for it.

When growing roses, we think that when a rose plant looks poorly all we need do is give it some fertilizer. It makes sense to give it some nutrients we think – there may be something lacking in the soil. Before I became a horticulturist that’s exactly what I would have thought.

However when a rose bush  is looking sickly the last thing it needs is fertilizer. You’ll just put an already stressed plant under more duress. You need to put on your detective cap and get up close and personal with your rose. Get your gloveson, take a small hand trowelwith you and have a good look at the soil it’s growing in.

At the drip line of the rose (the outer of edge of the plant) gently dig a small hole about 4 inches deep to see if the soil is saturated wet. Poorly drained soil can often be the problem when growing roses that have yellowing leaves which fall off and whose shoots die back. The soil can often have a really damp musty smell to it as well if it’s poorly drained.

If it was a disease like black spot or anthracnose, which can also cause leaves to yellow and drop off, you would notice black spots on the leaves.

What to do:

You can’t leave the rose bush there as it will eventually die from lack of air around the root zone – the roots rot and stop growing. Roses need air in their root zone as well as water for the roots to develop properly and be able to carry water and nutrients up to the rest of the plant.

If your rose is not looking too worse for wear relocate it to an area that has better drainage. Trim back the shoots to living wood and don’t feed it with any fertiliser until it’s re-established – at least not for a couple of months, and then only at half strength.. You could give it some extremely diluted liquid seaweed a couple of weeks after its relocated to give it a boost along, but make sure it is very much diluted.

Growing roses can be an enjoyable and rewarding hobby but when they start looking unhealthy don’t reach for more water or the fertilizer, go check the soil first.

18 Comments so far

  1. Cynthia on July 13th, 2010

    My husband and I planted several healthy looking bareroot rosebushes, and they are just not doing well. The new growth is spindly, pale, with narrow leaves and weak stems. The few buds we got are misshapen. We added soil amendments prior to planting, have added rose food, fish emulsion, bloodmeal, with no results. We are using soaker hoses, and the water drains through within 5 minutes. They get 6-8 hours of sun daily. What are we doing wrong? We are very frustrated-need help!

  2. admin on July 13th, 2010

    What kind of soil amendments did you add to the soil and how long were they in the soil before you planted the roses? If it was composted cow manure that you buy commercially in the bag or bagged compost from the plant nursery then that’s OK to add to the soil just before planting. However if it was some type of manure that hasn’t been aged or composted it could be burning the newly forming roots. Also you haven’t used any herbicides around the area where you’ve planted the roses? Herbicides used around roses can result in the spray drift from the herbicide going on to the roses and it developing narrow misshapen leaves and buds. You shouldn’t be adding any rose food, fish emulsion or bloodmeal to newly planted bare root roses until they start actively growing and have established themselves as the newly forming feeder roots will get ‘burnt’ by all these soil additions. These newly forming feeder roots have very fine hairs on them that can be easily damaged by fertiliser burn and this is one of the most common causes of death in newly planted roses.

  3. Shane on January 12th, 2011

    Hi there. Great article and the site also. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on how Roses respond to used coffee grounds being used as an occasional fertilizer. Do you have any experience in that area?

  4. admin on January 12th, 2011

    Hi Shane
    I liked your site too and its message about not wasting coffee grounds and using them in the garden. I have never used coffee grounds around roses or any of my other plants but your question got me researching the use of coffee grounds as a soil improver. In an interesting article written by Linda Chalker-Scott Ph.D, it appears it can be used as a mulch or in your compost pile but with certain restrictions. For anyone interested in doing this be sure to read the very informative article here:

  5. Dave Nockles on April 25th, 2011

    I bought some rose plants about two months ago and they now look quite dead (no life above soil.) Could there still be life in the root system? If so, should I just leave them and keep the soil moist

  6. admin on April 30th, 2011

    Hi Dave
    I would leave them in for a bit longer, keep the water up to them, but do not feed them anything. See if any new buds start developing along the shoots (give them 6 weeks) and if still nothing I’d say they’re dead and you’ll have to replace them.

  7. Sami Swan Thompson on May 13th, 2011

    Greetings ~
    I live in North Texas and have a climbing rosebush that was given to me by my family several years ago. The tag said “antique yellow roses” – that was all. It’s grown quite large & bushy at the top, blooms well, but the bottom from the soil up to about two feet was basically a bare stalk. About a month ago, I was rinsing out a pitcher in which I’d mixed up canned cat food & poured the rinse water onto the base of the rosebush. (Our area is on watering restrictions.) After two weeks of this, new growth popped out of the bare stalk and I noticed more roses were blooming than usual. It’s been two more weeks, and now there are two new branches growing from that stalk at a very fast rate.

    Are roses SUPPOSED to like cat food? My family is teasing me now, saying my roses have become carnivorous, and to expect them to start meowing. I’m hopeless with plants (obviously), but I love my roses & I’ve tried very hard not to kill them.
    I’ve never put any kind of chemical or fertilizer or them – I just water them and then back away. I do cut the blooms off to enjoy, as they only last a day or so.

    I’d appreciate any advice. It won’t hurt my feelings if you laugh – we’re laughing here already. But my roses could use your help to survive.


  8. admin on May 20th, 2011

    Hi Sami
    you did make me smile for sure. Roses aren’t supposed to like cat food and I wouldn’t be fertilising them this way. You mention that you have never fed your roses fertilizer so maybe it’s time to start. You would be pleasantly surprised at how well they would respond. Just grab any type of rose fertilizer (there are plenty on the market) and follow the directions to the letter. A lot of people try to over fertilize their roses by doubling the recommended dosage rates thinking the more the better, but that can be lethal for them. If you just follow the directions you can’t go wrong. Make sure you water the soil well before applying the fertiliser, fertilize them every 6 weeks in the growing season (Spring and summer and early autumn) and you will be rewarded with an abundance of blooms and a robust plant. I am also a big fan of using liquid seaweed on my roses as well – it helps the soil and disease resistance of the rose plants. Best of luck with your roses

  9. Robin on May 21st, 2011

    I have 6 knockouts planted on a hill in front of my house that I put in about 3 yrs. ago. Up until this year all were doing well. Now the largest on has turned yellow- leaves and stems,right down to the soil. I tried trimming it back but it just grew back and turned yellow again. The leaves turn brown and fall off also but it still blooms. I don’t think it’s getting over watered as it’s on a hill and well drained. Like I said, all the others are fine. Can you help me with this ?

  10. admin on May 22nd, 2011

    Hi Robyn
    This sounds unusual – that only one of the six is affected in this way. If it was a fungal disease or a pest you would think it would affect the other rose plants next to it. Leaf yellowing and leaf fall can be caused by a number of things. If I were you I’d check the plant very closely, esp at soil level. Next time you water them, water as usual and then go and check the soil of this unhealthy plant. Have a poke around of the soil at the base. Is the water penetrating through to the roots. Is it draining away or is the soil still soggy compared to it’s neighbor. Have a good look at the plant itself. Is there any evidence of pest attack or webbing under the leaves or on the stalks? Any evidence of fungal disease? Check the stems esp where they join the branches – any sign of boring insects? It could be a nutrient deficiency in the soil. You could do a pH test of the soil with one of those home pH kits to check that’s OK – if the pH is too high or too low, that can stop certain elements being made available to the plant. There could also be some type of nutrient deficiency in that particular section of soil. I’d check all these factors to see if I could find the cause of the leaf yellowing. Good luck.

  11. lockhart ross on July 8th, 2011

    the flowers on my roses only last about a week.what do you think is wrong?

  12. admin on July 11th, 2011

    Hi Lockhart
    that’s not unusual for roses to last on a rose bush for a week

  13. marie on April 9th, 2012

    i have 4 rose bushes. 3 of them are as healthy as can be. one was an old bush transplanted (couldnt be healthier and 3 i planted last year (2 also excellent). the last one however is looking very sad. alot of the stems are brown, only a little bit with a few leaves is green, and the leaves themselves are not as shiny and healthy looking as the others, very dull looking, there were a few yellow leaves a few weeks ago so i added some rose fertilizer as advised by the garden centre but while the yellow leaves are gone or fallen it still doesnt seem to be coming on. they arent crowded, are in good soil, a mix of top soil, moss peat and compost, its a new bed only made about 4 years so it couldnt be nutient depleted yet and i add new soil every year.

  14. admin on April 9th, 2012

    Hi Marie
    Do some investigative work around this particular rose bush to see what could be causing this rose to fail. Start off by checking the soil a couple of hours after watering it. What you’re looking for is whether a) the soil is draining properly in this section of the rose bed and b) the water you’re giving this rose is percolating down to the roots. So poke a stick deep into the soil to check both theses things.

    Next check the soil pH to make sure it is around the 6.5 mark. It is surprising how pH can differ in different spots in the same bed, so you can check it with a home testing kit or take it to get analysed at a garden center. If pH is too high or too low, some nutrients aren’t made available to the rose bush which can cause problems.

    Now it’s onto the above ground parts of the rose; check the canes for borer holes or the tell tale signs of sawdust at entry holes. Where the canes are brown, prune just under the brown part to see if the inside of the cane is brown all the way down the stem, it could be canker. Also examine the leaves or stems for any signs of pests or fungal disease eg spots on leaves, rust, purple-brown angular streaks on stems/leaves. If you’re not sure what to look for get a rose book to check symptoms of various fungal diseases or take a sample to your garden center.

    Hopefully you will uncover what is causing the problem by doing this detetctive work. If you come up with nothing then it may just be a dud rose bush that you might want to replace. Good luck with finding the problem. And if you do have to replace it, make sure you remove the old soil and replace with new soil before putting a new rose in that place. Also check the roots of the problem rose if you dig it up to see if there was any damage or evident dieback of them and smell them. If there is a musty mouldy smell it could be drainage problem further down the soil profile.

  15. Stormy Barden A.K.A the rose mass murder on June 10th, 2012

    Help I read you on line and enjoy your advice and take your advice I long to grow small potted roses inside my home I bring them home place them in a larger than store brought pot add some plant food and good soil place in the east window the rest in the west window And watch them die slowly when the topsoil is dry i water them until moist and when i find that i have over watered ed i drain off the extra right now the are covered with dead and dieng green and brown leaves the pots there in have river rocks and pea gravel in the the pots please help me before i kill again these poor beautiful roses What am I doing wrong and if it is over watering what can i do to save my roses thank you very much stormy B

  16. admin on June 11th, 2012

    Hi Stormy B
    I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but roses aren’t house plants and cannot be grown indoors. This is why your indoor roses are dying despite the TLC you are giving them. Roses can be grown successfully in pots, but the pots need to be put outdoors in an area that gets 5-6 hours of sun per day, and be watered regularly so they don’t dry out (esp during summer) as well as regularly fertilized. The only way to have roses indoors is to pick them off the plants outside and put them in a vase and enjoy them that way.

  17. Willie Ross on August 16th, 2012

    I have 5 rose bushes that seem to be dying this year. 3 of these are about 20 years old, & have a lower stem as big as your arm. I don’t know what to do, & need some advice as these roses are special to me.

  18. admin on August 18th, 2012

    Hi Willie

    I suggest you have a good look at your rose bushes to investigate why they may be dying. This involves observing what’s going on with the above ground parts as well as below soil level.

    Check for any insect pests or disease on the leaves or stems of your roses bushes. Are there any signs of leaf or stem damage? Sometimes nutrient deficiencies can show up in the leaves.

    Also check the soil around your rose bush. Get a soil test done on it. If the soil is too acid or alkaline some nutrients aren’t made available to the plant and that can adversely affect it’s growth.

    Dig around the roots a little. Do the roots look healthy? No rotting or dieback on them that could be caused from water sitting around them for too long.

    Check to make sure they’re getting enough water; a few hours after watering check that the water percolates down deep enough to the roots. In hot weather it’s imperative that your roses get regularly watered and that the water goes down deep enough to the roots, not just the top few inches, but still drains away.

    You haven’t been over fertilising them have you?

    These are some of the things you can check to try to find the cause of the problem.

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