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Fall chores to keep dahlias and roses alive

Richard Plain examines the roses in the Rose Garden of the St. Albert Botanic Park in St. Albert September 27, 2017.

Keeping the fall chores to a minimum is the goal for two of St. Albert’s best gardeners.

Award-winning rose grower Richard Plain has his system down pat. Though he grows some 30 or more roses, cleaning them up and getting them ready for winter seldom takes more than a sunny afternoon’s effort.

“I have 15 roses in pots and those cannot be left in the pots or they will freeze through, but even then it only takes me a couple of hours to cover them,” Plain said.

Similarly, life-time St. Albert Garden Club member Derrick Harrison fusses a bit with his blackberry canes, but mostly he lets things be and hopes for the best.

“I tend not to grow things that need a lot of winter looking after,” Harrison said.

Harrison’s rule of thumb is simple: “If it’s worth saving – like some dahlias are worth saving – then I put the effort into it. Or if I want to experiment and it’s worth keeping, then I try,” he said.

The “try” part is the trick and often the fun of the fall preservation exercise.

Despite all the work and covering techniques, sometimes the Alberta winters are just too hard. Last year Harrison and Plain both lost roses and so did the St. Albert Botanic Park.

“Last year was a hard year on roses. I think it may be because we had a period in the spring with no snow cover. Ideally roses like a long, late fall so they can harden off and a nice heavy snow cover,” Plain said.

For better or worse, here are Richard Plain’s fall rose-protection methods:

Hardy roses: “All I do in the fall is deadhead the roses and clean up the leaves around the bush. Other than that, I do nothing.”

In-ground tea roses: Plain doesn’t cut back the canes of the roses he planted in the ground but he does cover the base with a good six to eight-inch mound of dry leaves or peat moss.

“Those canes will be dead by next spring but if the graft union is covered when you plant it with about two inches of soil, and if you cover that graft with leaves or peat moss in the fall, they will usually come back in the spring,” he said.

Some growers prefer to cut the in-ground rose canes back to eight inches in height. They put a little box over the rosebush and fill the space with peat moss. But Plain found he had equal success with both methods.

Potted roses: Plain cuts the canes of these roses back, because of space reasons. He then removes them from the pots and lays the bushes together on the ground before covering them all with about eight inches of peat moss.

“I used to dig a trench for them but that is hard work. In addition, if they are in the ground, sometimes in the spring you dig them up and they have been eaten or they are diseased. Dry peat moss works well if you cover them and leave them flat on the ground,” Plain said.

Dahlias and vines

Preserving dahlias can be hit and miss, Harrison said.

“You must dig up the dahlia tubers and wash and dry them,” he said.

If the tubers are wet, they could get mouldy. If they freeze, they will die.

Harrison puts the tubers in insulated boxes filled with dry material such as shavings . As for hardy grape and clematis vines, Harrison leaves these plants to the elements.

“If I have water left in the rain barrel, I tend to use that up to water the plants, but I seldom use water from the hose,” Harrison said.

As for that blackberry that Harrison loves, it gets protected because he wants the fruit.

“I usually bend the canes over and cover them with bags of leaves,” he said. “They aren’t as hardy so if they are left alone, they could freeze.”

Susan Jones: Susan Jones has been a freelance writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2009, following a 20-year career at the St. Albert Gazette. Susan writes about homes, gardens, community events and people.