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Growing Roses in Olympia

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Growing roses in the Olympia area presents challenges beyond those found in most other parts of the country.  No, we don't have Japanese beetle here, nor oak root fungus, but we are Blackspot Kings.  Western Washington's climate is described as having four seasons:  rain, more rain, still raining, and road work.  Winter here is cool and wet; spring is cool and damp and slow to warm up; summer is warm, dry, and all-too-short; fall is cool and damp again.  The sun shines for about 65% of summer days, but only 30% of winter days.  Olympia is in USDA Hardiness zone 7b, which means average winter lows of about 10F, although 20F is more typical; and AHS Heat Zone 4, which means only 15-30 days a year over 86F.  Some years we don't even get as many as 15 hot days.  We are Sunset zones 4 and 5.  Roses might freeze in winter, but equally likely they won't; however summers don't offer enough heat to produce a lot of blooms.  2 to 3 bloom cycles is the best you can expect here.  But, the blooms we do get are huge and long-lasting!


According to the Western Regional Climate Center, Olympia's average maximum temperatures range from 44F in January to 77F in July and August.  Average minimum temperatures range from 31F in January to 49F in July and August.  Freezing temperatures are common December through March, but rarely low enough to damage roses severely.   Our growing season runs from 120-150 days, with about 150-200 frost-free days.  Last frost in spring is generally considered to be past on Mother's Day, which is when all of Olympia rushes out to buy hanging fuchsia baskets for Mom.  First frost in fall is usually around early October, but may be as late as December.  Frost, however, is not damaging to roses.  Damaging temperatures, usually those below about 20F, occur sporadically, mainly from late November to early March.  Pipe-bursting freezes have occurred as early as Halloween, however. Every few years we get what we call an Alberta Clipper:  intensely dry and cold weather, carried on a northeast wind, from the general direction of Alberta.  Alberta Clippers can produce single digit temps, or even subzero.  Roses (and pipes) will freeze in these conditions.  And pretty much every winter brings a windstorm that can damage roses, either by dropping a fence, power pole, or tree into the rose garden, or by partially uprooting the roses themselves.  Our gravelly sandy soils don't give rose roots much mechanical traction, especially when waterlogged, as they often are during these windstorms (mid-latitude cyclones).  Roses growing in gravelly soils can be just about yanked right out of the ground in high winds.


While our total annual precipitation is no greater than that for the eastern half of the country, it tends to fall as a 9-month-long continuous drizzle, rather than distinct showers and downpours separated by days and weeks of sun.  This presents some problems for roses.  Blackspot, for one; spot anthracnose for another; and botrytis rot for another.  Roses that are disease-resistant in other areas, aren't here.  Disease pressure is very high - our climate is very favorable to fungi such as blackspot, anthracnose and botrytis.  Growing roses will require some attention to protection from fungal pathogens.  On the flip side, mites are rarely troublesome here - they do not like our climate at all!

Some rain falls in every month, though very little falls in July or August.  The rainy season generally runs from October through April.  Annual precipitation averages anywhere from 50-60".  Roses will need to be watered while actively growing, from May into September, as average precipitation during that period is significantly less than the 1" per week needed by the roses.

Some snow falls every year, usually in January or February, but snow is on the ground for less than 5 days per year on average.  Snow here tends to be heavy and wet and can damage climbing roses, tree roses, and the larger shrub roses.  Snow can form effective insulation in some parts of the country, but not here.  Not enough of it falls, it doesn't stick around more than a few days, and the coldest weather is clear and dry, not snowy.  (But, as this website was being developed, Olympia was buried under 1-3ft of snow for 10 days, preceded by single-digit temperatures, and followed by every single river in Western Washington jumping its banks as all that snow melted under 11" of rain and 50 degree temperatures.)


Olympia-area soils are young soils - the glaciers only just retreated about 12,000 years ago after all.  Nearly half of the populated area of the county is on glacial upland soils, so most soils in our area are high in sand and gravel, and low in clay and organic matter, which together mean that the soil has little ability to hold either water or nutrients.  The USDA's soil surveys describe Olympia-area soils as being well-drained and leached of nutrients.  Water drains through fast, and fertilizer doesn't last long.  Pockets of clay loams appear here and there, which will retain water and nutrients and can be very good gardening soils.  Alluvial soils and glacial outwash soils are excellent gardening soils - fine sand loams and silt loams.  Much of the rest of the area is glacial gravelly till - like gardening in dirty aquarium gravel.  Most gardens will benefit from addition of compost and other organic materials to the soil on a regular basis.  Fast-acting fertilizers disappear fast; organic fertilizers will last much longer.  Encapsulated slow-release fertilizers, however, need warm soil to work, and we don't get that here until July or August.

The high rainfall means that the soil here is generally acidic, as low as pH of 4 or so on some sites, although gardens are usually about pH 5.5 - 6.5.  This plays havoc with nutrient availability!  Most gardeners add lime in fall, although it won't be necessary every year except in the extremely acidic soils.  And, our river valley soils can be neutral, or even a little alkaline, so don't make assumptions.


2008,  The Olympia Rose Society . This page last modified:  Saturday, November 12, 2011