Green Thumbs in the Garden

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Last week, I launched this column with a celebration of the many wonderful qualities of native plants. So it may seem odd that this week's column focuses on roses. But, in fact, any drive around Fort Stockton in the spring and early summer reveals the truth: Roses grow really well here. The intensely reliable desert sun and dry air pays off in the form of pretty spectacular rose blossoms. And hard is the heart of a gardener who doesn't love roses. The fragrance and color variety are endlessly rewarding; even reward enough to compensate for the ever-present thorns.

But truth be told, roses are a plant with native roots in the TransPecos. When Lt. William H.C. Whiting crossed the Davis Mountains in March of 1849, he named the pass for the wild roses the grew around the springs and seeps. Wild Rose Pass is still the route the road follows from Balmorhea to Fort Davis.

That rose, probably Woods Rose (Rosa woodsii), has been found since at various sites in Limpia Canyon. With a simple five petal form, Woods Rose is a very different plant than the hybrid teas common in many West Texas gardens. But it is certainly worth looking for if you find yourself hiking in the spring in the TransPecos mountains.

Meanwhile, as the Fort Stockton winter continues to oscillate from windy and frigid to cool and beautifully sunny, “this is why I live here” weather, I'm detecting a change; maybe it's the slightly longer days. But just this week, I detected the first stirrings of spring. For the rose gardener, this means a couple of things: It's time to prune the roses, and it's time to fertilize. Both will pay off with a much better bloom when spring finally arrives.

Much has been written about rose pruning and there are many controversies within. I'm certainly no expert in the field, but I try to keep it simple. Much depends on the kind of roses you have in your garden; different varieties of rose prefer different probing methods. Gallicas want one thing, Hybrid Musks another. Thus the confusion. If you have roses in your garden that perform well with your current pruning methods, then don't change a thing.

Why mess with success? But if your roses are blooming less every year you might think about a change.

I do see a fair amount of hybrid tea shrub roses in local gardens. Pruning practices for those are pretty straightforward. First of all, get yourself some good heavy gloves. You'll be happy you did. And a decent hand pruner. If you already have one, make sure it's clean and sharp. Newly planted roses should be pruned very hard. This encourages basal growth rather than top growth. The old of maxim of “being cruel to be kind” applies here. In the long term you'll have healthier roses.

For established hybrid teas, the routine is simple. Remove thin or dead wood, then cut back the stronger shoots to about one third their length each year. If possible, prune above an outside growing shoot. This will open up the rose bush to more light and air.

Once pruned, it's time to fertilize. Local nurseries and home stores carry suitable rose fertilizer. Look for fertilizers low in nitrogen and high in potash with a good mix of trace elements. Iron is important in areas with alkaline soil, like Fort Stockton. Water your fertilizer in well, check your soil to see how dry it is, and if the spring rains don't come, water regularly.

These are some tips that should really pay off in the spring when the desert sun coaxes your roses to a truly memorable bloom.

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