Planting Roses

After the blog I wrote a few weeks ago about cataloguing the Sissinghurst roses, a reader asked if I could share how we plant our roses here in the garden. As it’s still rose planting season for bare root roses, I thought this might be a useful topic to cover.

Container grown roses can be planted at any time of year but at Sissinghurst we only plant bare root roses, which must be planted during their period of dormancy in winter. There are a few advantages to using bare root plants, the main ones being that they are cheaper and have time to establish their roots when there is plenty of moisture in the soil and they are not putting their energies into making leaves or flowers. When spring arrives, the rose should be able to grow away quite happily without needing too much attention from us.

Soil preparation is important. We always dig the area thoroughly, adding homemade compost to the soil before digging a hole that’s large enough to comfortably accommodate the roots, ideally twice the width of the plant’s roots. As a rule, we try to avoid planting a rose where one has previously grown because of rose replant disease but we can sterilise the soil if necessary. However, as a home gardener, sterilising is probably not an option for you, so you will have to choose a new spot for your rose. If the soil is wet, check that a ‘smear pan’ hasn’t been created by the spade and use a fork to loosen the sides and bottom. We also add some bone meal to the bottom and lightly fork it in.

Bone meal is high in phosphorus and calcium, nutrients that are particularly important in root growth and often difficult for plants to access. However, research has shown that soils high in phosphorus may actually suppress mycorrhizal fungi in the soil and the RHS now do not recommend the addition of phosphorus rich fertilisers, so it’s likely we will be reviewing our own practices soon. You can read more on these two links:

Once the hole is perfect, attention can be turned to the rose. Check the roots and if they are dry, soak them in a bucket of water for a while. Ideally a rose should be planted as soon as it is delivered but in real life that’s not always possible and roses quite often end up waiting in the wings until either the right weather arrives or planting fits in with our schedule of work. If the rose isn’t going to be planted for a while, just heel it in to stop the roots drying out.

Once ready to plant, we make up a solution of mycorrhizae, mixing the granules with the correct amount of water and a thickening agent to make application easy. A good consistency is like custard that will pour from a jug. This will coat the roots and stick to them but not form big clumps. Dip all the roots into the solution and coat thoroughly. Mycorrhizae are beneficial fungi that form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of most trees and plants. In return for sugars from the plant, mycorrhizal fungi will form an extensive secondary root system for the rose, infiltrating large areas of soil and allowing the plant to access extra nutrients and water. These extra nutrients and the ready supply of water allow our roses to become established quickly. Once the roots are thoroughly coated, place the rose in the hole ensuring that the roots are well spread out and that the graft union (where the cultivar joins the rootstock) is below the soil level. You can use a small cane laid horizontally across the hole to check that the union is at the right level. When happy, return the soil and firm well.

Always water even if the soil is moist as it helps the soil particles settle around the roots and gives the roots immediate access to water. We then give a final top dressing of compost. Either label your rose or note the name for future reference. This is particularly important if you are planning to plant a few different roses. Finally, lightly prune the rose stems to an outward facing bud and then wait patiently for your rose to grow and flower.

Watch and Wait

Watch and Wait

If you want to have a rose in your garden but don’t know which one to choose, why not visit Sissinghurst in June and find your own personal favourite. Planting is easy; choosing your favourite is the real challenge.

Helen Champion







10 thoughts on “Planting Roses

  1. Interesting reading, Helen! The info about phosphorus rich fertilisers is a surprise to me, although I’ve often thought it causes quick growth followed by atrophy, which thus makes sense. What really intrigues me is the info about using a solution of mycorrhizae on the roots. Would you pour this over pot-grown plants on planting too? I’ve never heard of doing this! Is/are there brand names you could recommend? About the closest I can imagine in South Africa is compost activator!


    • Hi Helen!
      What a great, thorough article on the Sissinghurst method of planting bare-root roses. So much valuable info. I’m sure to refer to it often. Thanks so much! Do you have a favorite in the collection?
      Best regards!


      • Hi Ann, great to hear from you. Hope you are surviving your extra cold winter. Pleased you found the blog helpful. As for a favourite rose, I am always changing my mind but at the moment I particularly like single roses such as Rosa ‘Complicata’. Helen


    • Hi Jack, the most important point to remember when using mycorrhiza is that it must have contact with the roots. For a bare root plant this is most easily achieved by dipping the roots into a solution. For a pot grown plant you could use the powdered form as long as the roots are visible. I’ve used both types here at Sissinghurst. Not sure if it is available in South Africa but wish you luck in your search! Helen


  2. Dear Helen,
    I’m truly admiring your gardening skills, I have never planted anything in my life expect changing the broken pot for my orchid. But still, I’m Canadian and when it comes to gardening, we only have couple of plants which can handle cold Toronto’s climate . That’s why I enjoy reading blogs about gardening – I am looking forward to SPRING time! Good luck with your garden 🙂


  3. Thanks so much for sharing this post! I’m curious what you use to mix with the mycorrhizal fungi as a thickening agent? I look forward to each of these blog posts, I appreciate the details, the photos and before and after pictures- it’s like we get to learn alongside you master gardeners! We’re still waiting for spring in the Chicago area, and it was a treat to see the snowdrops near the planting holes in this post.


    • Hi Cole, thanks for your positive comments about our blog. In answer to your question about the mycorrhizae, the thickening agent is actually sent with the product so we don’t buy it separately. It doesn’t indicate on the packet what it is exactly but it creates a mixture very much like wallpaper paste! I think you should be able to find the combined product in the US too. Helen


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