Sub-Zero Rose Information – Learn About Roses For Cold Climates

Sub-Zero Rose Information – Learn About Roses For Cold Climates

By: Stan V. Griep, American Rose Society Consulting Master Rosarian, Rocky Mountain District

If you’ve never heard of them before, you might wonder, “What are sub-zero roses?” These are specifically bred roses for cold climates. Read on to learn more about sub-zero roses and which types work well in a cold climate rose bed.

Sub-Zero Rose Information

When I first heard the term “Sub-Zero” roses, it brought to mind those developed by Dr. Griffith Buck. His roses grow in many rose beds today and very hardy choices for cold climates. One of Dr. Buck’s main goals was to breed roses that could survive harsh cold winter climates, which he achieved. Some of his more popular Buck roses are:

  • Distant Drums
  • Iobelle
  • Prairie Princess
  • Pearlie Mae
  • Applejack
  • Quietness
  • Summer Honey

Another name that comes to mind when such roses are mentioned is that of Walter Brownell. He was born in 1873 and eventually became a lawyer. Luckily for rose gardeners, he married a young lady named Josephine Darling, who loved roses too. Unfortunately, they lived in a cold region where roses were annuals – dying each winter and replanted each spring. Their interest in breeding roses came from a need for winter hardy bushes. Additionally, they sought to hybridize roses that were disease resistant (especially black spot), repeat bloomers (pillar rose), large flowering and yellow in color (pillar roses/climbing roses). In those days, most climbing roses were found with red, pink or white blooms.

There were frustrating failures before success was finally accomplished, resulting in some of the Brownell family roses that are still available today, including:

  • Nearly Wild
  • Break O’ Day
  • Lafter
  • Shades of Autumn
  • Charlotte Brownell
  • Brownell Yellow Rambler
  • Dr. Brownell
  • Pillar/climbing roses – Rhode Island Red, White Cap, Golden Arctic and Scarlet Sensation

Sub-Zero Rose Care in Winter

Many of those selling the Brownell sub-zero roses for cold climates claim that they are hardy to zone 3, but they still require good winter protection. Sub-zero roses are typically hardy from –15 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit (-26 to-28 C.) without protection and -25 to –30 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 to -1 C.) with minimal to moderate protection. Thus, in zones 5 and below, these rose bushes will need winter protection.

These are indeed very hardy roses, as I have grown Nearly Wild and can attest to the hardiness. A cold climate rose bed, or any rose bed for that matter, with Brownell roses or some of the Buck roses mentioned earlier would not only be hardy, disease resistant and eye-catching roses, but offer historical significance as well.

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Roses for Cold Climates

One of the first gardening things I did when we moved here over fifteen years ago was to dig up the rose bushes and get rid of them. I didn’t want to have anything to do with plants that needed to be babied to get through the winter and perpetually sprayed to get them through the growing season. Since then I’ve learned that there are hardy roses out there if you know where to look. And I don’t just mean winter hardy I mean roses hardy enough to take what diseases and insects dish out in stride. I’ve also learned that many roses that are not winter hardy can live through northern winters to bloom again if certain procedures are followed.

Both of the books pictured here contributed to my education, but Tender Roses in Tough Climates by Douglas Green is the book I’d recommend to you. Why? He’s more my kind of gardener, or at least, rose grower:

None of our roses get special treatment. There is no hilling, no wrapping, no insulating. A normal fall pruning and we wish our roses good night for their winter’s nap.

On the other hand, Jerry Olson and John Whitman, the authors of Growing Roses in Cold Climates , are rose fanatics who believe that no trouble is too much trouble to help your roses make it. They advocate the Minnesota Tip method to protect tender roses from the vagaries of winter. This involves half-digging up the shrub, tipping it over into a trench, and burying it. Then you have undo everything come spring. Ugh.

Apparently there is some debate in rose circles about these two methods. Olson and Whitman state:

We do not agree that planting the bud union 6 inches deep [as Green advocates] is a good way to protect most tender roses . . . Almost all experienced growers are now using the Minnesota Tip Method or slight variations of it to protect their tender roses in cold climates. (p. 187)

Green is aware of the tip method and concedes it is the only way to get a tender climbing rose through a tough winter (because it blooms on old wood), but hardly finds the method foolproof:

If your efforts have been successful, buds will begin to swell as the weather warms. If not, hardy roses will seem a very attractive option. (p. 52)

To be fair, Olson and Whitman also admit that

. . . the principle of deeper planting is effective with specific types or varieties of budded and own-root roses. (p. 187)

I guess it’s all a matter of emphasis. Certainly, Growing Roses in Cold Climates has the same depth of information that I’ve really appreciated in the other two books in this series that I’ve reviewed. It’s a very good book I’d just make it my second rose book. Or, if you’ve experience growing roses in more moderate climates, read them both and make up your own mind. And Olson and Whitman’s book discusses many more roses, so if you’re determined to grow the rose in your grandmother’s garden, try looking there first.

But if you’re like me, and you don’t already have your heart set on growing a particular rose, go with Doug Green’s book. If you click on the Amazon link you’ll discover that it’s quite a wait to get that book new. However, Doug has revised it himself and now offers it as an e-book, which means when you buy it, you receive a .pdf file that you can either read on your computer or print on your printer using your own ink and paper. Also, he has information at his website on growing roses here and here.

I actually didn’t dig up all the roses when I moved here. I left one rose on the northwest side of the house, mostly because I didn’t realize it was a rose–no thorns that I could see. It turns out it is a native rose, either Rosa virginiana or Rosa palustris, and it is growing in other, untamed areas of our property with no help from anyone. I confess I just bought my first rose this year (pictured at left, past its prime), a Griffith Buck hybrid called ‘Wanderin’ Wind.’ While visiting Der Rosenmeister in Ithaca I fell in love with this pink-blooming rose that has perfect hybrid-tea-shaped blossoms on vigorous, shrubby foliage. I had planned to get ‘Country Dancer,’ but ‘Wanderin’ Wind’ was in bloom and persuaded me to forsake my first choice. So, I’ve just reviewed two books on roses, telling you they have good advice, but my own rose, planted according to Doug Green’s advice, is only now about to face its first winter. So what do I know?

Rose Bush Care: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Roses

Oso Easy Double Red™. Photo by: Proven Winners.

Rose care is easier than you think—anyone can grow them successfully. Plant your roses in a sunny location with good drainage. Fertilize them regularly for impressive flowers. Water them evenly to keep the soil moist. Prune established rose bushes in early spring. Watch for diseases like powdery mildew or black spot.

If you’ve been afraid to start a rose garden, the truth is, roses are no more difficult to care for than other flowering shrubs. Follow these ten essential rules to learn how to grow roses:

1. Start with the roots

You can purchase roses already potted in soil or as dormant bare-root plants. Each type has its benefits:

  • Container roses: Container roses are a great for novice gardeners because they’re easy to plant and establish quickly. They can also be purchased at local nurseries throughout the growing season. This allows you to plant them when climate conditions are ideal— preferably a cool and cloudy day.
  • Bare-root roses: One of the advantages of bare-root roses is the greater selection of varieties available. Plus, they are economical and can be ordered online. However, unlike container roses, bare-root plants need to have their roots soaked overnight in water before planting. Also, the roots should be kept moist for the first few months after planting.

Bare-root roses, which arrive dormant, offer the widest selection of varieties, but also require more TLC in the months after planting. Photo by: Michael Vi / Shutterstock.

2. Choose your roses wisely

There are numerous classes of roses, ranging from micro-miniatures to grandifloras, and from groundcovers to climbing roses, with some classes containing hundreds of varieties. While it may be tempting to fill your rose garden with a wide assortment, you are likely to end up with a disorderly array and too many plants for the space. A few well-chosen varieties will give you more satisfaction than dozens of mismatched plants that don’t work in harmony.

If you want lower-maintenance roses, try shrub or landscape roses, like the Oso Easy line, for a more care-free rose garden.

Limiting the number of rose varieties you grow will help you avoid creating a disorderly and mismatched array. Oso Easy Hot Paprika® landscape rose. Photo by: Proven Winners.

3. Find the right site

For the best show of flowers and the healthiest plants, rose bushes should receive six to eight hours of sunlight daily. They should also be planted in well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. In especially hot climates, roses do best when they are protected from the hot afternoon sun. In cold climates, planting a rose bush next to a south- or west-facing fence or wall can help minimize winter freeze damage.

4. Get the timing right

Roses are best planted in the spring (after the last frost) or in fall (at least six weeks before your average first frost). Planting early enough in fall gives the roots enough time to get established before the plants go dormant over the winter.

Bare-root roses are typically available only in early spring and should be planted soon after you bring them home. Roses purchased in containers give you more flexibility in planting time.

5. Plant properly

Planting your bare-root or container roses properly will ensure they get off to a good start.

  • The planting hole needs to be deep enough and wide enough to accommodate the plant’s roots. The area needs to have good drainage, since roses don’t like wet feet.
  • Mix a generous amount of garden compost, peat moss, or other organic matter with the soil that was removed from the planting hole. Use some of this mixture at the bottom of the planting hole and place the rose bush in the hole.
  • The plant’s crown should be at ground level in mild climates, and 2 to 3 inches below ground level for cold climates.
  • Fill the hole partially with the soil mixture and add a slow-release fertilizer.
  • Water thoroughly, and then finish filling the hole with the remaining soil.
  • Water again, then mound loose soil around the canes to protect the rose while it acclimates to its new site.
  • If you’re planting several rose bushes together, space them at least 3 feet apart to allow ample growing room as they mature.

When planting roses, dig a deep, wide hole that allows for proper drainage and leaves room for root growth. Photo by: wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.

6. Fertilize regularly

For an impressive show of flowers, a rose bush needs to be fertilized regularly. Organic methods provide a slow, steady supply of nutrients. Monthly applications of compost, composted manure, and other organic and natural fertilizers, such as this organic fish emulsion, work well. Organic amendments also help to encourage beneficial soil microbes and a well-balanced soil pH.

Slow-release fertilizers, like Jobe's Organic Fertilizer Spikes, supply the right balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other minor nutrients. They also give rose bushes the nourishment they need for optimum growth.

For newly planted bare-root plants: Apply organic amendments to the soil at planting time. Wait until after the plant produces its first blooms to apply full-strength fertilizers so you don’t burn the new roots.

7. Water wisely

Soil should be kept evenly moist throughout the growing season. The amount and frequency of watering will depend on your soil type and climate. Roses do best with the equivalent of 1” of rainfall per week during the growing season. Roses growing in sandy soils will need more watering than those in heavier clay soils. Hot, dry, and windy conditions will also parch roses quickly.

How you water is as important as the frequency. To keep roses healthy, avoid wetting the foliage. Use a soaker hose, watering can with a long spout, or a watering wand pointed directly at the soil.

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8. Prune like a pro

It’s almost impossible to kill a rose bush by overpruning. But, if you follow a few simple rules, the results will look more professional and result in a healthier plant. Many newer rose varieties don’t require much —if any—pruning. A good pair of bypass pruners (not anvil style) and rose pruning gloves can make the job even easier.

Major pruning should be done in early spring. For all roses, start by removing any dead or damaged canes (any that look brown). For specimens that require a hard pruning, cut back a third to a half of the previous year’s growth until you find healthy, white centers inside the cane.

You can lightly prune your roses all season long to keep them well-groomed.

Some varieties of reblooming roses will require deadheading to encourage reblooming throughout the season. Cut spent blooms back to the first five-leaflet stem to promote regrowth.

If your rose bushes are “self-cleaning” (which means they don’t develop rose hips), no deadheading is needed. Blooms will drop off automatically and the plants will keep on producing more flowers.

For step-by-step pruning instructions, see Pruning Roses.

9. Keep them healthy

The best way to prevent rose diseases is to choose disease-resistant varieties. These roses are bred and selected to resist the most common rose afflictions, including powdery mildew and black spot.

Powdery mildew typically appears during the summer, especially when the days are hot and dry and the nights are cool and wet. The tell-tale signs include leaves that curl and twist and the development of a white, powdery down on the leaves. To avoid powdery mildew, water plants at ground level in the morning, since wet leaves (especially overnight) provide the perfect growing environment. Pruning a rose bush to allow air to circulate through the foliage also helps prevent this powdery growth.

This rose bush has been damaged by powdery mildew. Photo by: Amelia Martin / Shutterstock.

Black spot is a waterborne fungal disease. It appears as circular black or brown spots on the top side of leaves. It starts toward the bottom of a bush and works its way up, eventually causing defoliation. Prevent this disease the same way you prevent powdery mildew: by improving air circulation around and through the plant, and watering at ground level. A simple mixture of baking soda and horticultural oil can help fight the spread of black spot. You can also use an organic 3-in-1 fungicide. (Also see: Rose Woes: Black Spot).

Pesky insects that like to feed on rose bushes include aphids, Japanese beetles, spider mites, and sawflies. Most of these pests can be controlled with neem oil or insecticidal soap. In the case of aphids, a blast of water from a hose in the morning is often the only treatment necessary.

Photo by: Jan J. Photography / Shutterstock.

10. Show them off

Roses have long been prized for their beautiful and fragrant cut flowers. But, no roses are lovelier than those gathered fresh from your own garden. Here are a few tips for preserving your cut roses:

  • Roses will last the longest when they are cut immediately after the bud stage, when the petals are starting to open.
  • Use hand pruners or garden scissors with sharp blades to cut the stems without damaging their water uptake channels.
  • Cut roses when they are dewy fresh and hydrated (in morning or evening), not when the plant may be stressed from heat.
  • Recut the rose stems right before putting them in a vase. This helps eliminate air bubbles that prevent them from taking up water. Also, cut the stems at a 45-degree angle so they don’t rest flat on the bottom of the vase.
  • Strip off any lower leaves that fall below the water line to avoid rot and bacterial growth. Above the water line, leave as much foliage as possible, which will help to draw up water.
  • Change the water frequently—daily if possible—to remove any bacteria. Also recut the flower stems every few days to improve water absorption.


Hardier Climbing Roses for Cold Climates

When I was a boy, I used to help my father prepare his climbing roses for the winter. We used to dig a 1-foot (30 cm) trench next to them as long as the plant was tall (often 6 feet/2 m or more), carefully detach the branches, bundle them together, then lay them in the bottom of the trench. Then we filled in the trench with soil, adding a good 6 more inches (15 cm) of soil brought in from elsewhere for extra protection. Then we covered the entire mound with a thick layer of spruce branches.

Come spring, we had to undo the whole thing and dig up the branches and attach them back on their trellis for the summer. It was a huge amount of effort, but if you wanted to grow climbing roses in zone 5 (where I lived at the time), that was the only way to go.

Hardy climbing rose ‘John Cabot’

Fast forward to today. The frost-tender climbing roses are still around and widely sold, to boot, but there are now much hardier climbing roses, most created by crossing tender climbing varieties with extra-hardy shrub roses. The Explorer series produced by Agriculture Canada comes to mind, with tough-as-nail climbers like ‘John Cabot’ and ‘William Baffin’, but there are others. They require no winter protection whatsoever: really, zilch! Just cut back any dead branches in the spring… and there won’t be many of those!

You’d think I wouldn’t have to point out that hardy climbing roses need no winter protection, that the very term “hardy climbing rose” would say it all, but you’d be wrong. I still receive plenty of questions from gardeners wanting to know how to protect their hardy climbing roses, including people who have been putting theirs in trenches for the winter for decades and are getting a bit tired of doing so!

The point is that, no matter how cold it is where you live, even in zone 2 in some cases, you no longer need to put all that effort into protecting your climbing roses for the winter. Just plant hardy climbing roses, attach their branches to whatever support you’re using and let them grow.

Gardening can be so simple when you choose the right plants!

A Few Extra-Hardy Climbing Roses

Hardy climbing rose ‘Polestar’

Here are a few examples of truly hardy climbing roses that gardeners in colder climates might want to try:

  1. ‘Alchymist’ zone 3
  2. ‘Captain Samuel Hollande’ zone 2
  3. ‘Félix Leclerc’
  4. ‘Henry Kelsey’ zone 4
  5. ‘John Cabot’ zone 3
  6. ‘John Davis’ zone 3
  7. ‘Louis Jolliet’ zone 3
  8. ‘Marie-Victorin’ zone 3
  9. ‘New Dawn’ zone 4
  10. ‘Polestar’ zone 2
  11. ‘Quadra’ zone 3
  12. ‘William Baffin’ zone 2

Cold Climates

In areas where winter is mild, but the ground still freezes, follow these steps to give your roses a little extra protection during the cooler months of the year.

1. In early fall, stop cutting roses and let plants form hips (seedpods) as they being to prepare themselves naturally for winter. If you trim them while temperatures are still warm, they may try to produce tender new growth that would just get zapped during a cold snap.

2. After the first frost in fall and night time temperatures are dipping into the 20s, protect plants from freezing and thawing cycles by piling soil over the base of the plant cover the bud union (a swollen area on the main stem where the top of the plant was grafted to the roots) and up to about a foot of the plant. Use fresh topsoil or compost, not soil scraped from around the plant. Pile dry, shredded leaves or bark chips on the mounded soil. In spring, remove the leaves or bark and the pile of soil spread the leaves and bark around the garden.

3. Prune overly long canes on bush-type roses to prevent wind damage. Expect a certain amount of winter kill (when stems die back from the cold and won't produce new growth in spring). Remove dead canes in early spring.

Are Rose Bush Leaves Supposed to Drop During Winter

I have 5 different roses, and 3 of them have not lost all of there leaves, even though we've experienced sub-zero temperatures several times this winter. 1 of the bushes hasn't even lost most, if any at all of its leaves. Is this normal? It just seems odd.


Thanks everyone for your responses. I do not know what roses I am growing. I tried to identify them this last summer over at the Rose ID forum, but didn't get any results. Two are ramblers (same variety) and the others are bushes.

I guess I'll just wait until spring to see whether they drop their leaves or not. This is the first year I've ever really paid attention to the roses, so that explains my inexperience.

york_rose, I'm not sure about what you mean about "four honest to god seasons," but I'm pretty sure we do have four seasons. We have a hot, dry June with monsoons the rest of summer, a mild fall, cold winter, and mild spring.

dimitrig, it's a common misconception that all of Arizona is desert. I live in the mountains of Arizona, at 6,400 feet. We get several feet of snow each winter, and yes, experience sub-zero temperatures at least once a year. This year we got to -13 at the beginning of January and -9 just a few days ago, with several nights at similar temperatures.

Watch the video: SubZero WEBTOON - Episode 74