How to Grow Happy Roses

How to Grow Happy Roses

A few tips from Sugar Hill Farm

story & photos by Torrey Douglass

Rosemary Roberts moved to Anderson Valley 15 years ago after living in Hawaii for more than two decades. “I could only grow ginger and orchids there, so when I came here I had a lot of pent up energy,” says Rosemary. The result of that unleashed energy is truly astounding. Over 500 rose plants of more than 100 varieties grace the gardens of Sugar Hill Farm, Rosemary’s hilltop property just outside of Philo, named for its elevated location and her childhood nickname, Sugar.

“I’m a farmer at heart. I love watching things grow,” Rosemary comments as we sit on her patio on a sunny spring day. Though she’s run out of room for planting her own, she continues to buy roses, giving them as gifts for whatever occasion presents itself. She loves to pore over the rose catalog every spring, and her personal favorite is the Sally Holmes, a “rambler” that can stretch to 15’ if you let it climb but will also grow as a standalone shrub. It boasts clusters of white blooms all over which open up to reveal apricot colored centers. A prolific bloomer year-round, it doesn’t need dead-heading, sharing copious beauty in exchange for minimal maintenance.

Rosemary has passed on her gardening talents to her son Jim, who owns and operates The Madrones just south of Philo. Besides tasting rooms, guest quarters, and a spa, The Madrones has its own gorgeous gardens, resplendent with over 200 rose bushes. Lucky guests get to pass through the profusion of color on brick paths when approaching the accomodations at the back of the property. Fresh arrangements beautify all the rooms, and rose petals are integrated into spa treatments offered at the spa and salon, Santé.

As someone whose thumb is less than green, I’m always open to pro-tips from the many gifted gardeners in our area, and when it comes to roses, it’s clear this pair knows a thing or two about cultivating the sweet-scented beauties. Follow their recommendations to bring a burst of color to your summer garden and raise some happy roses.


Protect: Gophers are the bane of many a gardener’s existence. Get ahead of the potential destruction caused by these varmints by surrounding the root ball in a cage of wire before putting the roses in the ground.

Prepare: Roses love acid soil. Add some fine redwood bark to your regular planting mix to give them the boost they crave.


Prune: In late winter (February or March), cut back roses to 14"-18" high. Blooms grow on new wood, so it helps if you cut them back to the main stems.

Fertilize: At the same time as pruning, add amendments to the soil. Jim recommends manure and a balanced fertilizer but skips the rose food. He also adds a handful of epsom salts at the base of each bush. The magnesium it provides helps the plant absorb nutrients. Spring rains that follow carry the amendments down to the roses’s roots.

Water: A once or twice weekly deep watering during the dry months can keep your roses radiant. Drip irrigation is best, as overhead watering can encourage diseases that thrive in the damp—rust, powder mildew, and black spot. Rosemary likes to turn on the water Sunday night and turn it off Monday morning. The tiny emitters of her drip irrigation slow down the spray to prevent run-off and allow for deep absorption into the soil.

Dead-head: If you don’t remove dried up blooms the plant will think flowering season is over, but if you cut them away you can get repeated blooming throughout the summer. Jim finds that cutting three or four leaflets down from the flower will inspire more growth. Dead-heading takes time, but if you are faithful about it your roses may reward you with joyous color and fragrance into the fall.