Preparing Soil for Rose Gardening

Guest Blogger: Katie E-P, Garden Editor & Writer

It’s planting time! Because your plants will get everything they need from the soil, it’s important that the soil has good structure, the right pH, and adequate nutrient levels. Here’s how to prepare the soil to give Easy Elegance® roses the best start.

Step One: Do a Soil Test

I used to be in the “do as I say not as I do” category of recommending soil tests until I finally did one (I specifically tested the soil in my vegetable beds because I was having some issues.), and lo and behold, there was an actual problem. The pH of the soil was too low. I added lime and voilà! Problem solved. You can get soil test boxes and instructions/forms from your local extension office. These tests will report on the soil pH, organic matter content, structure, the presence of the big three nutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium), and, sometimes, trace elements. The reasons to get a soil test are multi-fold—but the main one is that it can save you money and time in the long run. It will identify problems to correct before planting that could potentially lead to the death of your new plants (low pH, low nutrient content, high nutrient content) or will identify that you have no problems and thus don’t need to spend money on soil amendments. Without going into an exhaustive botany lesson, the soil pH affects plants’ ability to take up nutrients from the soil, so it is important to get it right. It is also possible to have too much nitrogen or phosphorous in the soil, rather than too little.

Step Two: Amend the Soil According to the Soil Test Recommendations

If you didn’t get a soil test, don’t mess with the soil before you plant. You can skip directly to step three. If you find your plants aren’t doing so well, get a test and make adjustments later. The soil test will indicate whether the pH needs to be adjusted. Roses are happiest in soil with a slightly acidic pH (between 6.0 and 6.5). To raise the pH, add lime. To lower it, add sulfur. The soil test will give you recommendations about how much to add. You can purchase garden lime and sulfur (usually in the form of aluminum sulfate) at garden centers and home improvement stores. Follow the instructions on the package and, if possible, add the amendments to the soil a few weeks before planting to give them a chance to break down and change the soil qualities. It is possible, but unlikely, that the soil test results will recommend that you add fertilizer before planting. Most garden soils have adequate amounts of the big three. However, if the test says to, go for it! Conventional wisdom says to enhance the soil in the planting hole. Research shows that amending only the soil in the planting hole isn’t the best course of action, as it can turn the hole into a bathtub that traps water around the plant roots. The phenomenon is called “perched water,” and happens when water tries to move between layers with different particle sizes. What you need to know is that you should not mix a bunch of compost in with the soil you remove from the planting hole. If you’re redoing the entire planting bed working some compost into the whole bed can be helpful. Just don’t stop at the planting hole.

Step Three: Plant and Mulch

Sure, we are discussing soil preparation, but there’s a key improvement to soil that is made directly after planting, and that’s mulching. To plant, follow the instructions here. Just make sure you’re not missing a lot with the soil you put back in the planting hole.

Once you’ve planted, mulch around the plant with wood chips, compost, or shredded hardwood mulch. This will a) help retain moisture in the soil surrounding the roots and b) will break down slowly over time, adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil.

What sounds complicated really isn’t: get a test, follow the recommendations, and mulch. No more double-digging!