ARS Feature Article:
Winter Care of the Organic Garden

by Paulette Mouchet • 3947 Sourdough Rd. • Acton, CA 93510 •

It's September, it's 95 degrees outside, and my roses are gearing up for their fall flush of color. It's a bit disconcerting to be writing about whacking off canes and stripping leaves. Winter care of the organic garden can be a little more work than in the chemical garden, but you get the time back during the spring, summer and fall when you don't have to spray chemicals every few days and fertilize every four weeks. I've outlined the main activities below.


 Pruning is the number one winter (or early spring) activity, a project that frequently causes panic, even in seasoned rosarians. If you are trying to win King at the next rose show, your plants may suddenly seem like Fabergé eggs – much too intricate and precious for your Felco #9s. Take heart. I've learned over the years that you pretty much can't ruin your plants, you definitely won't kill them, and they will bloom next season. I've also learned that if you don't prune a bush, the world will not come to an end.

So why bother? Because pruning is good for your plants. Pruning enhances next season's flower production by encouraging the plant to produce new wood. Pruning opens up the center of the bush to improve air circulation, and that helps prevent future disease and pests. This is particularly important for organic gardeners who are not going to use chemicals later to solve problems they can take care of now by pruning.

As with any job, pruning is easier when you have the correct tools.

As far as I'm concerned, the most important pruning tool I own is my metal folding chair. I admire folks who can prune a rose in five minutes, but that's not me. I like to sit down and study a bush before starting to cut, and I figure I might as well be comfortable while I'm studying.

The proper pruning shears will make your job easier, especially if you keep them sharp. Dull shears require more hand and arm strength and can damage the plant. For canes up to 3/4-inch in diameter, I use a Corona #60 bypass pruner that fits my small hand well. I have two pair of Florian Ratchet-Cut pruners that I adore: a hook-nose mini-lopper and one the size of my Corona bypass shears. The beauty of Ratchet-Cut pruners is they don't require any strength in your hands or arms to make a cut – a blessing if you suffer from arthritis.

My favorite garden gloves have calf skin leather palms, and the cuffs go halfway to my elbows. My husband loves them because I don't look like I tried to commit suicide after pruning my roses.

Three goals in pruning a rose:

To accomplish this, there are four basic steps:

  1. Cut out everything that is dead (brown stems that snap when broken), diseased (splotchy yellow canes), or broken.
  2. Cut away canes that cross the center of the plant or rub against each other.
  3. Cut back the remaining canes to about one-half their original length.
  4. Reduce the remaining number of canes to between four and seven. All remaining canes should be at least as thick as a pencil.

Ideally, you will cut the canes so the uppermost bud is facing outward; however, when your plants send out new growth in the spring, you can fix the problem of wrong-way growth by scraping off the buds you don't want with your fingernail.

In mild winter areas, roses might not become fully dormant and drop all their leaves. Dormancy is nature's way of getting rid of foliage that is host to a variety of over-wintering spores, eggs and other potential trouble makers and is something you want to encourage.

If your roses don't go dormant and drop their leaves, you'll need to help them along by stripping off the leaves. To do this, hold the stem by the tip and pull off each group of leaves from the cane. Put these leaves into the trash, not the compost pile. Once all the leaves are removed, rake up any remaining debris around the bush and discard to the trash.

Finally, whenever you cut into a cane that is pencil-size or larger, the exposed surface is vulnerable to cane borers. Many people protect the exposed surface with a couple of drops of white glue or clear fingernail polish.

Dormant Spray

 If you had fungal or pest problems during the last growing season, applying a dormant spray after pruning is an excellent idea. Sprays applied during the dormant season have the least impact on beneficial organisms.

For mild problems, or as a preventative measure, use horticultural oil, which basically is mineral oil with an emulsifier added to make it water soluble. SunSpray Ultra-Fine Year-Round Pesticidal Oil is an excellent choice that can be used in the summer, too.

For more advanced problems, you can apply lime-sulfur. I have one rose that is a rust magnet. Every couple of years I apply lime-sulfur to just that bush to keep the rust at bay.

If this is your first season making the transition from a chemical program to an organic garden, you might want to apply fixed copper. Think of fixed copper as an intercontinental ballistic missile in your organic arsenal and use it sparingly. As your garden establishes a healthy organic balance, you won't need to (or want to) use fixed copper.


 Yup, fertilizer. Post-pruning is a good time to apply an organic fertilizer such as alfalfa or cottonseed meal. Winter fertilizing works in the organic garden because the plants don't rely on water soluble nutrients being delivered to their roots via water trickling through the soil. Healthy organic soil is full of organisms that store organic fertilizer nutrients. When a plant needs a nutrient, it sends out a message via root exudates to the beneficial soil organisms, who then bring on the bacon.

Organic fertilizers are "slow release." You don't have to worry about fertilizer burn or nutrients being lost to leaching. Organic fertilizers you apply now will slowly break down and be taken in and stored by the soil organisms. When the soil warms and your plants wake up, the supper table will be waiting. You don't have to figure out exactly what day of what month this is – Mother Nature and your plants figure it out.

Another good reason to apply organic fertilizer after pruning is that your mulch layer is probably fairly thin, making it easy to rake back from the plants to expose the soil underneath. After you apply the fertilizer, re-spread the old mulch and add a fresh layer.


 All gardens benefit from the application of mulch, but organic gardens require it. Vigorously growing plants use the nutrients in mulch, and eventually the mulch will disappear. Ideally, you will keep a 4- to 6-inch layer around your plants. Good choices include composted redwood, well composted manures, alfalfa hay and oat straw (not hay). Each type of mulch brings unique nutrients to the garden, so I like to rotate between materials. I particularly like alfalfa hay in the fall and winter because it stays put when we have our 40 mph Santa Ana winds.

Paulette Mouchet is a member of the ARS Good Earth R.O.S.E. Committee (, which is dedicated to helping people grow gorgeous roses using earth-friendly, organic techniques.

This article was provided to the TVRS as a courtesy by the American Rose Society.