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How To Grow Your First Rose Garden, 13 Simple And Somewhat Philosophical Steps


The other day I Googled “grow your first rose garden.” The results made me want to quit, right now, despite my bed of 8 happy white rose bushes. “Roses are very hard!” shouts the Internet. But this is rarely true. Most of you will be fine.


Wait, do you want a rose garden? I think you might, even if it’s just one beautiful rose in one beautiful container. Roses give back, both thorns and fragrance. Roses bud in perfection and die in romance. They talk to you. Well, that’s stretching it but at the very least you will want to talk to yours, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear their voices quiet in the morning.


Enough whimsy for we Sturdies. How to proceed without anxiety or annoyance? Pay little attention to the Internet. It’s easy, with a few exceptions, which we’ll get out of the way.

Who Cannot Grow Roses Happily?

  • Anyone who lives under a rock. Roses don’t like shade. Even “shade-tolerant” roses need 4-5 hours of sunlight. This is non-negotiable.
  • Anyone who lives at the bottom of the ocean, or, perhaps, in a bayou. Roses don’t like immobile wet, neither in the ground nor in the air. You can fix drainage issues, but humid climates will need a lot of room for breezes.
  • Anyone who lives by comparison and competition. Your roses may not look like the ones in the catalog but they’ll be yours and you’ll love them. Would you order kids from J. Crew and then worry that they didn’t come with blazers on? I thought not.


13 Steps To Growing A First Rose Garden For The Rest Of Us

Growing a rose garden is a higher level task than simply planting a rose, even if your garden is just that one rose. Kind of a Zen koan, isn’t it? These 13 steps, then, include some philosophy. However, because we are Sturdy, they also include fish fertilizer.


  1. Say to yourself, “Roses are plants, not wallpaper or furniture.” Enjoy that reality and all the accompanying imperfections.
  2. Start as small as you like, with intent. In a container, or the corner of a bed. Promise yourself a rose garden. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. That book had such a huge impact on my teen years.)
  3. Set your success criteria. You aren’t just slapping a flower, any flower, into an empty space. What is it you want from your rose(s)? I suggest joy. You may prefer blooms, or scent, or simply, survival.
  4. Pick an organizing concept. This will give you courage for the days of thorns, black leaves, and petals that fall too soon.
    1. One color. Mine are white but you know, pink is good too. Or red. Your choice.
    2. Highly scented varieties, grow a perfume garden.
    3. The apotheosis of some sort of category.
      1. All hybrid teas, all own-root, or simply, “anything in the David Austin catalog.”
  5. Double dig your rose garden, no matter its size. (Note: gardening videos often feature adorable young men. Side benefit.) This is most important. We double dug the raised bed in my front yard, 25 years ago. The earth has not forgotten, and applauds every season of growth.
  6. Buy some organic fertilizer and read the directions. I like that liquid stuff, it’s easier to use.
  7. Now, buy your roses! You may want to read up a bit, to understand the different types of roses and make sure you’re buying in line with your success criteria. Familiarize yourself with these terms, it’s not hard.
    1. Tea roses
    2. Shrub roses
    3. Climbers
    4. Ramblers
    5. Ground cover
  8. Even David Austin says it’s easy to plant a rose. (Hint: you can order bare root roses now for delivery in March). You’ll want to water them lot the first day, fairly often for the first couple of weeks, and then experiment to see how long they can go without wilting in your climate. Like any caretaking, it’s a dialogue. Oh, and water in the early morning so the leaves dry off but don’t get burned by the sun.
  9. Buy this pruner. Felco F-6 Classic Pruner For Smaller Hands. Remember that cutting is not the same as pruning but a good clean cutting edge makes both tasks a pleasure.
  10. Watch this short video about the anatomy of a rose. It’s good way to learn what the various pieces are called, which will be incredibly useful.
  11. When you do cut your inevitable blooms, cut back to a leaflet (little stalk) with 5 leaves on it. Or to a place on the cane (big stalk) with an “eye” that faces the direction you’d like another branch to grow.
  12. The container of fertilizer you bought will probably have told you to fertilize twice a year. Do this too. Although roses can live without fertilizer, with it they bloom a lot, which makes for happiness, and isn’t that the point?
  13. And, eventually, once a year, prune, (i.e cut the plant markedly back) those roses that you want to keep in disciplined shapes. (I let some grow wild occasionally.) In California we prune in January, so as to pretend winter is coming. You all with real winters might do so in November? December?
    1. Google “When to cut my roses in *place where I live*.” Get your answer, then run away from extraneous information.


In fact, this is a good rule about any domain overrun by information. Experts will generate data and opinions, that’s their job. You need to make quick strikes, like a spy in old Prussia. Wend your way through the ornate court, bow to anyone with a sword, grab your information and then RUN AWAY, back to the world of good enough.


It’s early morning now. I wonder what my roses are up to. I’ll probably have to go outside in my pajamas and check. They like to see me, I know they do.

Edited to add: Mary Ann has reminded me about aphids. I use neem oil spray against all ills; aphids, mildew, black spot beetles. It works well enough for a good enough world. Recommended.

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54 Responses

  1. Three years ago, thanks to Hostess of the Humble Bungalow, I planted a David Austin rose garden. We’ve now turned our front yard into a fruit and vegetable garden Gardening is a new thing to me, but I’m enjoying it so much and it’s teaching me “patience” and the beauty of waiting – something I’ve needed to learn.

    1. @Kathy, I love your Instagram feed, all the roses and greenery. I’m glad you enjoying gardening, it does teach patience, in a joyful and not frustrating way, I find.

    2. Exactly, not frustrating which is how I’ve always experienced waiting before. It’s very joyful.

    3. @Kathy,
      Kathy it fills me with joy knowing that my rose passion has been passed on to another gardener! Our motto at the Victoria Horticultural Society is Show what you Grow and Share What you Know!

    4. Lisa I am so happy that you love growing roses…they are such a stalwarts in the garden. So beautiful and rewarding and they make gorgeous bouquets for vases, weddings, birthdays and hostess gifts!
      The Felco’s are the best secateurs and will last a lifetime…keep them oiled, sharp and dry. We have two pair as my husband likes to clip and prune and we tried sharing but when I needed them he wanted them too!
      Your white rose garden is very elegant!

  2. Holy cow! I just came in from the garden — transplanting a rose! It’s a little late but she’ll be ok.

    Great advice. Especially pruning for your geography, or zone. We have real winter to contend with and prune in early Spring, before first leaf. Last blossoms of Autumn (or really late Summer) are left on the bush to devlop hips which is a signal to the rose ‘winter is coming’. Couldn’t resist.

    My experience here in New England with David Austen roses goes back to the early 2000s. Several are still going. You have to find the ones that work for your garden. His roses are beyond beautiful.

    I find gardening to be a very hopeful pursuit. If something doesn’t work out this year, there’s always a chance to start anew the next.

  3. I had a few roses at my former home, in the only reliably sunny spot. They brought me great joy. I also have roses in my new yard, although they are very small roses and one is more groundcover size. But the flowers are beautiful, and bring me great joy.

  4. I live in shade and humidity, so I’m more than a little jealous. Thankfully, the camellias are beginning to bloom, and while not roses, they are lovely. Enjoy your beautiful garden!

    1. @Paula, Thank you:). And our camellias are only just budding. I like the sassanquas best, the single-petalled ones. How about you?

  5. My Palo Alto rose garden, which I planted with my beloved organic gardener (hole digging, cutting lesson, big yearly pruning) and his assistant is now twenty years old. I planted it for the blooms, with which I loved to fill my house, and for the view of the garden from my living room window. I planted twenty-four rose bushes. It was a large and lovely grouping. My roses were mostly David Austin with a few tea roses added, since I love the Peace rose. My roses were peach with a few color ringers (see Peace). My favorite line in your piece is, “Wend your way through the ornate court, bow to anyone with a sword, grab your information and then RUN AWAY, back to the world of good enough.” This is good advice for life in general. There is a lot of alarmist information out there. I have, and love, the same Felco pruning shears you recommend. I suggest getting two pairs and keeping one in your kitchen or flower room drawer for trimming cut flowers. My English ex-husband and I had one of our “language moments” similar to when he first asked for a “flannel” when he was in the bath, when he asked me for the “secateurs,” which is the English name for pruning shears. I love that name, it sounds so much more serious and official than “pruners.”

    1. @Katherine C. James, I bet your Palo Alto roses were and are amazing. I too love the term “secateurs.” And believe that the rose I thought was Pope John is actually a Peace rose. Absolutely gorgeous.

  6. That Zimmerman video was great. Also loved this entire post. My father planted a Peace rose by my bedroom window when I was a teenager. A good memory. Wonder if its still there? Question for you: what do you do about aphids? I hate bringing in a lovely rose only to find a sneaky aphid came along for the ride.

    Great post, Lisa.

    1. @Mary anne, Thanks! Glad you liked the Zimmerman video, me too:). And thanks for the reminder, I use neem oil for everything and anything, aphids, black spot, mildew, etc. I’ll post it up above. In the case of aphids, however, I find that if I wash the rose off outside, and let it sit for 15 minutes before I bring it in, most of the bugs will have made their departure.

  7. Oh to find that all day sun. We aimed for a sylvan glen and we got it! No roses but sylvan glen yes. Love David Austin Roses. My favorite to paint. the colors are magical!

  8. In our climate, at least, you only have to watch the wild Nootka rose to cease being afraid of growing roses…the right variety in the right place and they’re unstoppable! Those Felco secateurs are a huge help in keeping them in line, although I’ve somehow managed to lose two over the years, despite their nifty here-I-am red handles.
    Gorgeous photos of your beautiful white blooms and, as usual, gorgeous and wise words as well.

  9. What beautiful roses you have, and such a wonderful post. I will need to pay a bit more attention to your tips as the few roses I have always end up with both rusty and black spots upon their leaves. I shall not give up though!

    1. @Chronica Domus, Thank you. I will admit, I tolerate a fair amount of rust. Not black spot, as it seems more damaging, but I don’t demand dark green leaves everywhere. I’m a devoted but somewhat lackadaisical gardener;0.

  10. Thank you! Have put neem oil spray on my Amazon wish list for spring. Aphids be gone! Also will try to remember to wash off roses outside.

    1. @Mary anne, Good luck! BTW, some people buy the pure stuff and dilute it, others go for the prepared spray. I’ve moved to diluting it myself, it’s cheaper.

  11. Forgive me – I just can’t resist the Master Gardener plug. Rose gardening is totally regional. The varieties you choose, pruning time, and disease prevention all depend on where you live. Your local Master Gardener hotline from your county extension service can give you free, reliable, research-based information.

    1. @Carolyn from Oregon, No forgiveness required! You are so right. So, confession, I’m daunted by interacting with my Master Gardener chapter. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give a couple of hints on how to engage effectively? When I look at their website it looks like I have to know so much more than I do:(. I guess my question is, how little can I come in with?

  12. This post is perfect for me as I’ve been wondering what to do in the spot where some of my hydrangeas are getting too much sun. It sounds like time for me to grow roses, something I’ve always been too intimidated to try. Thank you for all the advice and, especially, the video on double digging a garden.

  13. Lisa – thank you for this. My mother grew David Austen’s Gertrude Jekylls in Southern California. After she died, my father transplanted them to Phoenix. They are, fortunately, doing quite well in the desert.

    Thanks for the pleasant memories. :)

  14. “Roses give back, both thorns and fragrance”
    Just perfect-as your beautiful white roses :-)

  15. LUFF THIS! I cannot grow many varieties because I garden in a tropical climate with a lot of humidity in Old Testament style conditions. But I persevere and make do with about 20 hybrid teas, some standards, some shrubs.

    I really like this new gardening you- what took so long?

    Everyone knows gardening is the height of chic.


    1. @Faux Fuchsia, MAKE DO!?!?! I’d say 20 hybrid teas counts as a remarkable showing. Go you! And I’ve been gardening ever since I stopped working, in 2013. It has just taken me a while to have something worth saying, and to learn how to put together a pictures/words garden post that works.

  16. Experts will generate data and opinions, that’s their job. You need to make quick strikes, like a spy in old Prussia. Wend your way through the ornate court, bow to anyone with a sword, grab your information and then RUN AWAY, back to the world of good enough.

    Well said!

    1. @nunc, Thank you! One of the really fun parts of blogging is that you spend so much time writing and editing that occasionally these phrases and images show up unbidden and you’re like, “Huh, thanks imagination, where did you come from?”

  17. Are these your roses? They are dreamy!
    I always wanted roses but had a house with adamant shade. Hostas are simply not as romantic. And I agree, competition and gardening don’t mix well, regardless of exposures.

    Oh and I also wanted a little girl. J. Crew could have sent her in anything.

    1. @Duchesse, They are! And while I love hostas, I agree. I suppose hydrangeas would be the replacement? BTW, when is your grandchild scheduled to arrive? That is so exciting!

  18. Enjoyed reading this post. I have tried to establish a rose garden, but without much success. My husband used to buy me a rose bush every Mother”s Day, but the Japanese Beetles( sorry don’t know the Latin name)would feast on it and nothing I tried worked. I gave up on rose, and clung tomy perennials in the front and annual baskets on my deck. Then a few years ago I purchased a yellow peace rose, which was my mothers favorite. I planted cloves of garlic around it and that discouraged the beetles. Alas our cruel Ohio winters killed that off. Now I have an rose bush my husband bought for me, brave man that he is. I believe it is called an everblooming? It keeps coming back. Next spring I may take your advise and double dig a rose bed. I’ve been wanting to plant a white rose bed for years.

  19. My sister tipped me off to the fact that Felco also makes some left-handed pruners. I treated myself to a pair last summer, and now wonder how I gardened so long without them.

    1. @Carol, Ah, right, they are so popular they can afford to make the perfect ones for everyone. They even make them for small hands.

  20. Thankyou for a lovely post.
    When I see you have a new post I give a sigh of contentment, pour a cup of coffee/tea/wine depending on the hour, sit back, and enjoy. I am so happy you have started writing more about gardening but truthfully I enjoy your writing regardless of subject! ‘Roses bud in perfection and die in romance’ Delightful.
    With my shady garden I have so far only managed to grow the shade tolerant rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’. She flowers briefly but oh so beautifully. I wish I could grow more roses; they are divine.

    1. @IonaK, Thank you in turn for the very sweet words. They really do resonate. And thanks also for the recommendation on a shade tolerant rose. Maybe some other readers will be successful with her. Roses are divine, I agree

  21. Lisa, your white roses are spectacular. I have tried to grow yellow roses and failed miserably. Today I have one rose and the yellow transformed to red! Not sure what happened. My newest garden is Japanese inspired. Very simple layout, a mature Japanese Maple, birds nest spruce and mungo pine. Three medium sized stones. The granite temple is on order. Placement was key. Very Zen. Leaf mulch covers the entire surface.

    I will consider a small raised bed rose garden next year. Thank you for the tips and recommendations. Maybe I’ll succeed this time! Susan

    1. @Susan, Thanks! I wonder if your host rose, or whatever they call the roots that the yellow rose was grafted onto, took over? Your new garden sounds beautiful – I love quiet landscaping. I wish you the best of luck if you try a raised bed – I think it helps to check garden blogs/good nurseries to find out which roses thrive in your geography. May the next yellow stay yellow;).

  22. Love my roses, even though they don’t flower as well here in Melbourne as in my native England. They always succumb to black spot later in the summer due to the humidity and look very second rate, but now, in spring, I couldn’t ask for more. Mr Lincoln is fabulous for blooms and perfume, David Austen has wonderful flower shapes and I always plant Peace in memory of my parents. I like to think of it growing for them in my previous gardens as well as it does for me now.

  23. My husband just asked me what I’m laughing about, but it’s too hard to explain “ordering a kid from J Crew”!

    Since any spot that would happily grow roses is already occupied, although not by rocks, and even though I don’t live under the sea, I live close enough to see the effects of salt spray on foliage, I think I’m disqualified. I’m probably too competitive, too, come to think of it. ;-)

  24. Another point – I invite you to place one rose plant where passer-bys on the sidewalk can stop and admire it, not to brag, but to share the beauty. Someone who lives near me has these beautiful David Ausin-like yellowish roses that are extremely photogenic and wonderfully scented.

  25. I have quite a black thumb, but mostly it’s because I just don’t make the time for gardening and things die from neglect. I’d love to be able to cut fresh Roses in my garden. Maybe I’ll start with one and see how it goes.:)

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