One of the most time-honored Michigan traditions is traveling “up north” to spend idyllic weeks in the sunshine, water and woods. Some of us have cottages or second homes up north. While we don’t want to turn a cottage into just another suburban home, many cottage dwellers like to plant a few ornamental plants to enjoy flowers. Often, roses are rejected as being too fussy for up north. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The growing conditions up north are indeed different than a typical suburban garden. The most obvious difference is the weather. That’s a big reason we trek up north—it’s cooler, both in the summer and in the winter. Those winter lows can create challenges for roses. Up north gardens often contend with much more wind than in suburbia, especially if the cottage sports a lakefront vista. The sandy soil up north is inviting to clay-challenged suburban gardeners because it is easier to dig. However, that same soil doesn’t hold water or nutrients as well as the familiar subdivision clay soil.
Further, cottage dwellers aren’t able to provide their up north gardens with consistent care. Cottages often are empty for days or even weeks during the growing season, while residents earn their living in the big city. That means that plants aren’t watered regularly and there’s little time for spraying pesticides. Besides, who wants to apply toxic chemicals in the natural, up north environment? Seasonal cottages are often shut down in late September. The dock is pulled from the lake and the plumbing is drained and turned off. That’s a little too early to winter-protect tender roses, yet it may be the last time the owners visit the cottage before spring.
Even with all these challenges, roses can thrive up north with just a few special “tricks.”
Select winter-hardy roses and plant them in a sunny spot
This simple advice goes a long way in guaranteeing success with up north roses. There’s no getting around it: roses are sun lovers—the more sun the better. Roses convert sunlight to energy and energized roses are better able to survive winter chill, drought and pests. Plant a winter-hardy rose in a sunny spot and you’ll be rewarded with decades of bloom, even up north.
Some of my favorite up north roses include the hardy, fragrant rugosas and Canadian-bred Explorer and Morden Parkland roses. If you’d like a rose for cutting, consider the many bred by Dr. Griffith Buck at Iowa State University, known fondly as “Buck” roses. His pink and red roses are the most winter-hardy, while the white, yellow and apricot ones may need some extra winter mulch to survive up north.
Don’t overlook the once-a-year-blooming antique roses. They will create 3 to 4 weeks of show in mid-to-late June up north—exactly the time you will be visiting your cottage. After blooming, these hardy survivors turn into leafy, rounded shrubs, at home in a naturalistic setting. They’re reliably winter hardy and rarely bothered by insects and diseases. They’re survivors—that’s how they’ve lived to become antique roses! Several ancient rose varieties are native to Michigan, including prairie rose (Rosa setigera) and swamp rose (Rosa palustris).
Plant when you’re going to be at the cottage for a few weeks
Spend some time working organic amendments into the planting area. Put about 1/2 cup of bone meal at the bottom of the planting hole. This provides a good, very slow-release form of phosphorous, essential for root development.
Water heavily while planting and water newly-planted roses every day for several weeks; ideally a month. Water is the best “miracle chemical” to ensure success for a newly planted rose. It’s OK to use lake water on roses and may be better than mineral-rich well water. After a few weeks, reduce the frequency of watering, but plan to supplement nature’s rainfall during the first year, when roses need water 2 or 3 times weekly, especially in sandy soil. After the first year, roses are better able to withstand periods of drought.
Hold off fertilizing a newly planted rose for about a month. Check new roses frequently for animal damage. Critters seem to be attracted to freshly worked soil and could uproot your roses looking for the bone meal or tender roots to munch.
Once the roses are established, there are two treats that will bring them from so-so to spectacular: slow-release fertilizer and organic mulch.
Apply slow-release fertilizer in late spring or early summer
The plastic-coated, slow-release fertilizer pellets release nutrients slowly over 3 or 4 months. Roses are heavy feeders and, unfortunately, sandy soil doesn’t hold nutrients well. Organic fertilizers are good as well, but in sandy soils they must be used monthly from May through August. Compost is a good organic soil amendment that improves soil structure, but it doesn’t provide enough nutrients when used as the only fertilizer.
Several inches of organic mulch corrects many problems
Shredded pine bark mulch is readily available up north and is a wonderful top-dressing around your roses. It helps moderate soil temperature and moisture level, making your roses more forgiving if you must ignore them for weeks at a time. It smothers weeds and makes it easier to pull them. Over time, bark mulch decomposes, adding much needed organic matter to sandy soil. Spread a couple inches each year to replace the mulch that’s decomposed into the soil and to dress up your garden with a fresh look.
Heap some extra mulch around the crown for the first winter
Even the very winter-hardy varieties mentioned in this article aren’t fully established for their first winter. Their roots could frost heave and the tender new canes could attract rabbits. Heap 6 to 10 inches of extra mulch around the crown for the first winter. Hardy roses won’t need any special winter mulch in subsequent years, but you may need to ring them with mesh wire if the critters enjoy your winter garden.
Give your up north roses a little extra attention each May
Wait until the rose starts to leaf out, and then pull away leaf debris around the plant to create a little basin that helps collect water around the crown. Prune off any winter-damaged canes and shape the shrub, even if it means pruning some portions that are already pushing leaves. Apply slow-release fertilizer around the drip line of the plant and scratch it into the soil or mulch. You don’t have to bury the fertilizer, just get it in contact with the soil. Spread a couple inches of fresh organic mulch and water the plant very thoroughly to get the fertilizer’s nutrients to the roots. That’s it. Now enjoy hundreds of blooms from your lake-side hammock all summer!
Nancy Lindley was the co-owner of Great Lakes Roses in Belleville, MI.
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