Buying New Rose Plants

You’ve been pouring over catalogs, making lists, seeing how many new roses you can squeeze into your garden. Now it’s time to decide about actually buying the roses. There are a few things to decide before you go any further –

  • What should I be looking for when choosing a bare root rose?
  • Does the grade of a rose matter?
  • What about patented vs non-patented varieties?
  • Should I buy on-line or from a nursery?

You’re about to join the legions of American gardeners that purchase millions of rose plants a year from garden centers and on-line, so it is a big business with lots of choices to make. To help you be an informed buyer, read on…

What to look for when buying a bare root rose

If you’re purchasing your roses at a nursery or garden center, you’ll have the opportunity to inspect the plant before you buy. True bare root roses at nurseries are set in damp peat moss or similar material that retain moisture so that you can remove them and inspect the entire plant. Check the canes first; they should be plump with no wrinkles, have good green color, and no dried or discolored buds. The root system should be well developed and sturdy, not dry or mushy. The entire plant should be free from damage and obvious signs of disease.

When buying packaged roses, you can’t inspect roots, but you can check the canes so the recommendations above apply. You can also feel the weight of the container; if the plant is held in moist sawdust or other similar material, it will weigh less if it is dry than if it is moist, so a heavier container is probably a better buy. Some suppliers apply a thin coat of paraffin (wax) on the canes to reduce moisture loss and enable them to keep the plants out of the ground and in transit for longer periods of time. It shouldn’t hurt the roses.

Don’t buy dried out roses. You may think that the rose bush will “perk up” when you plant it, but that’s not likely. Adjusting to a new environment takes a lot of energy on a rose’s part. Putting it in the ground when it is already stressed just decreases the odds of having healthy, productive plants.

Buy your bare root roses early in the season before the plants leaf out. You want to conserve their energy to do their leafing out in your garden once they are in the ground.

Grading of roses

Bare root roses are graded according to the quality of their growth. Grades also designate the near-future size and productivity of the rose. The American Association of Nurserymen, in association with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), developed grading standards for budded field-grown garden roses to standardize rose sizes and to eliminate the outrageous claims made by retailers as to the quality of their roses. Their specifications for hybrid tea, tea, grandiflora, rugosa hybrids, hybrid perpetuals, moss, and climbing roses are:

Grade #1 – the bush must have at least three strong canes 5/16 inch in caliper (diameter) or greater, branched not higher than 3 inches from the bud union.

Grade #1 1/2 – the bush must have at least two strong canes of 5/16 inch or greater, branched not higher than 3 inches from the bud union.

Grade #2 – the bush must have at least one strong cane with a caliper of 5/16 inch or greater and at least one other cane of 1/4 inch.

For all the grades, all canes must be sufficiently hardened-off throughout and have a length before harvest of at least 16 inches. The specifications for polyantha, shrub, landscape, and low growing floribundas are the same as above except for 1/4 inch being the minimum caliper for a strong cane. The standards also specify that all grades should have a well-developed root system and have proportionate weight and caliper according to grade and variety.

Patented vs non-patented roses

Of the hundreds of thousands of plant cultivars in commerce or in plant collections, only a relatively small percentage have been patented. A plant patent is not a seal of approval by the federal government or any other agency. It’s a federal grant of an exclusionary right that provides control for the patent owner over a new plant’s propagation, use, and sale during the life of the patent.

The owner of a rose patent charges the grower a fee or royalty for each rose they sell, usually a dollar or two per plant. Without the protection of a patent and the resulting royalties, a rose hybridizer would have little interest or inclination in developing roses – ones with new colors, richer fragrances, or better disease resistance. Royalties also help fund rose mosaic virus disease eradication.

Generally speaking, new varieties of roses will be patented and for that reason will cost more than the non-patented varieties. It does not mean that the newer varieties are superior to the older ones. There are many, many roses available that are no longer patented that have been in commerce for more than seventeen years and are desirable additions to your garden. The rose remains the same when the patent expires, except a royalty is no longer collected. Bargain roses are always non-patented varieties so they can be sold at much lower prices.

Buying On-line

You can buy roses all year round through many types of outlets – rose specialist nurseries, general nurseries, garden centers, the Internet, supermarkets, and big box stores. Most of these carry roses during the bare root season, and through spring. Shopping on-line provides the greatest selection of roses, often debuting exciting new varieties that are not produced in enough quantity to make it into national distribution. While you can’t inspect before purchase, as long as you buy from reputable sources, there is little risk.

In addition to the best selection, when buying on-line there is no middleman, there is less handling as you are generally getting the roses directly from the grower; the plants are likely to be fresher and better quality and it is a shorter trip between their field and your garden. As specialists, they can provide top quality because they best know-how to harvest, store and ship their product. You get a guarantee – they are ready, willing, and able to stand behind the quality of their product. You can also get reliable information and expert advice.

Supporting your local businesses is a good thing. It gives you the chance to select exactly the plant you want. You can find a good selection of roses at most nurseries and garden centers, home improvement and discount stores. Go into this purchase in the same way you would for anything else – as an educated shopper. But remember, growers that sell bargain roses have a big need to reduce costs and little need to control diseases or be concerned about quality. Remember the wise words – “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

After growing roses for more than thirty years, I’ve learned that roses are hardy plants, and you can’t go too wrong if you buy a good healthy plant, give it a good location with sun and water and get ready to watch it perform!

For some additional tips, see Carolyn Parker’s RoseNotes on Where and How to Buy Rose Bushes and Paul Zimmerman’s Buying Roses in Bags

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