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Seize the moment: Graft a rose

“In July, according to the immutable law of gardeners, roses are grafted.”

— Karel Čapek, “The Gardener’s Year,” 1931

Until I read this line in Czech author Karel Čapek’s humorous treatise on gardens and gardeners throughout the year, I had never heard I should graft roses in July. In fact, I had never thought of grafting roses at all. But Čapek got me curious, so I did a bit of research, and here’s what I found out:

Yes, indeed, gardeners, if you desire to graft a favorite rose scion onto another rose rootstock, then you should do so when the weather is at its warmest because it is then that the rose bush is busy circulating nutrients from its roots to its stems and foliage. Just after the summer blooms have faded is an ideal time because now the plant can direct its energy to support the scion and heal the graft.

Why graft a rose in the first place?

Well, perhaps you have a plant that produces beautiful roses but has a weak root system. Or vice versa, you have a hardy, disease-resistant rose bush that produces ho-hum flowers. By grafting the desirable rose (the scion) with the desirable rose root system (the rootstock), you can enjoy the advantages of both rose species.

Another reason to try grafting roses is to create a unique plant that produces roses of different colors and sizes. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to try your hand as a surgeon — grafting roses is a fairly stress-free way to get started. Or like me, you’re always looking for something new to try in the garden. Why not give grafting roses a go to see what comes of it?

Many people do not know that most of the roses in their garden (unless they are heirloom roses) are grafted. In fact, grafting has been the primary method of producing roses since the first hybrid tea rose, ‘La France,’ was introduced in the late 1800s. Today, most commercial roses in the United States are grafted onto a particularly vigorous rootstock rose called Dr. Huey, a dark-red climbing rose that blooms throughout the summer and grows well in different parts of the country.

If you have noticed one spring that a red rose is growing where your peach rose grew last year, that means your peach rose for some reason succumbed over the winter, and now the Dr. Huey rootstock has taken its place. Don’t blame the good doctor; she’s merely an enthusiastic opportunist. Carpe diem!

Let’s say you’re ready to try grafting a rose. How should you go about it?

First, water the selected scion plant and the rootstock plant daily for a few days prior to the grafting procedure. Gather the materials you will need: a sterilized, sharp knife or boxcutter, a clean, sharp pair of hand pruners, garden gloves, a moistened paper towel and grafting tape (a special kind of tape that disintegrates on its own over time).

Mornings are the best time for grafting because the plants will be at their freshest, and their rate of transpiration will be slower. Try to work out of direct sunlight so your cuttings don’t dry out.

From your scion plant, select a healthy, young stem (from this year’s growth) that has established leaves and a flower that has just faded. Use the pruners to cut the stem from the plant and remove the flower, leaves and prickles. Cut the top and bottom of the stem, leaving about a 2-inch section with a node, or bud eye, in the middle.

Then use the knife or boxcutter to carefully cut out an elliptical-shaped “bud patch” from the section with the bud eye in the middle and a bit of the moist, greenish cambium layer underneath the bark. Immediately wrap the bud patch in a damp paper towel. Sterilize your pruners and knife or boxcutter again with rubbing alcohol.

On your rootstock plant, select a healthy stem and use the pruners to cut off leaves and prickles between two growth nodes. Then use the knife or boxcutter to make a 1-inch T-cut into the stem. The incision should just barely penetrate the cambium layer; don’t cut too deeply. Use the blade tip to open the two flaps made by the cut to expose the plant tissue, then quickly insert the scion bud patch into the T-cut, making sure the bud eye is facing upward.

Fold the flaps over the scion so the cambium layers of the bud patch and rootstock host stem will be in contact. Secure the bottom and top of the graft with tape, making sure to keep the bud-eye exposed. Keep the tape on the union area until it falls off on its own.

If you want to form a new rose bush with the scion, then cut off the upper branching of the rootstock plant so only the grafted section will bloom. You’ll need to prune off the rootstock’s new growth by looking for leaves that are different from the scion’s.

Be sure to keep the soil around the rootstock plant moist, and trim off the first couple of buds that emerge from the scion to reduce stress on the bud union. Also, watch for diseases that can infect the plant by entering the tissue through the grafting wound.

I’m told it takes a lot of practice to perfect the art of grafting roses. Čapek writes that his own attempt at grafting left him with a cut on his thumb and more tape around his wound than what he had applied to the rose bush. At least Čapek got the part about needing a sharp blade right.

Regardless of the hazards, I may try grafting a rose this summer just to say I’ve done it. Carpe diem, after all!

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.