Your gardening questions answered: Have I killed my rose?

Hybrid tea roses typically have a life expectancy of 15-20 years, even when well looked after

Q: On February 15th, I pruned back to within two feet, two 25-year-old Alexander Roses, which had become very leggy. One of them – in full sun – immediately then stopped producing any more buds. The second one – in semi-shade – is very happy and budding away. What can I do to get the first rose to start growing again? I’m worried that I’ve killed it! – FC, Co Galway

A: Introduced into cultivation in the early 1970s by the famous rose-breeding firm Harkness Roses, Rosa ‘Alexander’ is an award-winning, vigorous, hybrid tea rose with vermilion-red, lightly-scented flowers, and was named in honour of the British soldier, Field Marshall Harold Alexander. Like most roses, it likes a deep, fertile, moist but free-draining soil and a position in full sun. Although they can live for as long as 30-40 years, hybrid tea roses typically have a life expectancy of 15-20 years, even when well looked after. So your two plants have done very well to reach such a landmark age.

I suspect that this advanced old age, combined with the relatively hard pruning it was given, has either badly shocked or possibly killed your rose bush. The only way to know if it’s truly dead is to do that boring but sensible of things which is to wait and see. Quite often even plants that appear to be stone-cold dead will very slowly recover over time, and eventually start throwing out new growth. In the meantime, you could try very gently scratching away a tiny bit of the outer skin of its main stem. If it’s green underneath, then that’s a good sign of life.

To help things along, carefully weed around the base of both plants and then scatter a couple of handfuls of a good-quality, organic slow-release compound fertiliser on to the ground. Fork this into the soil very lightly and then immediately cover the ground with a generous mulch of well-rotted manure and/or garden compost to a depth of 5cm. Make sure that the latter doesn’t come into direct contact with the plants’ stems to avoid possible problems with decay and disease.


This combination of fertiliser and manure/compost will boost soil fertility, as well as add plenty of organic matter to the soil, together acting like a general health tonic for both plants. To further boost plant health, keep your roses regularly deadheaded during the growing season, give them an occasional liquid seaweed foliar feed when in active growth, and give the base of each plant a second helping of slow-release organic granular fertiliser in late July-August.

If the worst has happened and your rose bush is indeed dead, then unfortunately it’s not a good idea to replace it with a new rose bush which might subsequently suffer from the condition known as rose sickness, resulting in poor growth and sometimes even death. Although the reasons aren’t fully understood, rose sickness can happen when new roses are planted into the same patch of ground where other rose plants previously grew for a long time. Instead opt for another kind of long-lived ornamental, sun-loving shrub such as deutzia, fuchsia, rosemary, hydrangea, lavender and philadelphus.

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening