arggh - i hate being stupid!!

nippstress - zone 5 NebraskaJune 7, 2014

HI folks

After 8 years and 750 surviving roses, you'd think I'd know better - I could accept these things as a newbie, but less so now. I'm a casual fertilizer of roses at the best of times, but I do at least put down some (mostly) organic fertilizer in the spring to give them a boost. In particular, I love feeding the established roses alfalfa- I throw it underfoot into rose beds like candy at a Mardi Gras parade. Any rose with more than a pencil diameter cane that's at least a year old gets its own large handful at the base. I can get away with this because of our dry Nebraska climate, where the alfalfa sits happily under our (dry) oak leaves and gradually crumbles into dust and lovely nutrients over the course of the summer.

Well, not this summer. Here in late May/June we've gotten deluged with rain. Three inches last weekend with tornados and tennis ball sized hail just north of us, two inches this week, and another 3.5 inches just last night. This followed our usual dry patch heading into summer, so I was out earlier last weekend fertilizing the roses in my zone 6 pocket hot sun bed, which usually is the "rose hospital" for fussy roses that don't really like our zone (like all of my teas). Most of the roses that had agreed to survive the winter were up to 2-3 feet and starting to bloom after being cut to the ground, and even the weakest specimens from last year that had survived had a good 3-4 inches of lovely green growth on them. I was so proud of them (sigh).

I really did know better. In past years, I'd lost weak or spindly canes part way into the summer because the leaves had collected too close around the canes and the moisture had rotted out the canes. So this year, I was SOOOOO careful to pull away the leaves from the base of each and every rose and they had grown so very nicely in response. But, go figure - here I come with the alfalfa expecting this to be a usual summer. In one day after putting it down last Saturday, the alfalfa pellets had swelled up to amazing proportions around each and every rose and created a soupy, gloopy, toxic mess at the base. The weaker roses immediately shriveled and died overnight and I really don't expect them back. Some of the pencil-thin canes have badly burned leaves like the photo below, but might come back and forgive me in time. The trouble is, this chemical soup probably burned the roots as well as the leaves, since it's clearly being taken up and affecting leaves beyond the gloop line, so even these own root plants are iffy at best.

Sigh. I'm usually pretty philosophical about roses and their damage when it's just one of those things. Being a zone pusher and rose crowding addict, I routinely sigh but accept around 100 winterkill deaths and 2-3 rose stepping-on disasters every year. It's different when it's rose murder. Well, not exactly premeditated (what was I thinking?), but at least involuntary roseslaughter. Most of the roses are replaceable, but at least a few were Vintage plants not available elsewhere, like poor Florizel that actually survived this brutal winter and WAS looking rather nice.

I know I'll get over it, and it's a life lesson learned, but I really HATE BEING STUPID. Maybe that'll help me remember next time, though. Needless to say, I'm done fertilizing for the year, since I'm not risking that in the rest of the beds, and the roses need to breathe more than they need fertilizer.

Beyond middle age, but still learning hard lessons


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You have my sympathies.

I'm no newbie, but I STILL occasionally kill a plant trying to pop it with fertilizer.

One thing you might try: use one of those hose end sprayers that can concentrate water into a strong stream to blast those crumbling pellets to pieces & dilute the alfalfa.

I just fertilized blackberries & the thought of hoeing in the fertilizer to over 100 plants was too overwhelming, so I dumped it at the base & sprayed over them to dissolve & distribute. Got a few looking burned today, so re-watered, but most look okay & it's hot as heck here.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2014 at 4:43PM
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I'm not usually on this forum but decided I had to check out the reason you feel stupid. I soooo enjoyed your post, Cynthia! I too am quite casual about rose care but because I live in northern CA, even a fool like me can keep them alive.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2014 at 4:50PM
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Kippy(SoCal zone 10. Sunset Zone 24)

Oh no!!!

But do you think it was more the roots drowning than the pellets?

    Bookmark   June 7, 2014 at 4:51PM
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Cynthia, it always makes a goopy mess when I put it out here in the summer due to all our rain, but I've never had it harm a plant in the ground. I put it out the same way you do. I have, however, gotten it too close to the base of small roses still in pots and rotted the canes and killed the rose. I wonder if there is something else involved?

    Bookmark   June 7, 2014 at 6:12PM
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seil zone 6b MI

NO! You are NOT stupid. You just made a mistake. It happens to the best of us from time to time. I make them all the time too. Somehow the roses manage to survive my foibles anyway.

I know it's rained like crazy but my suggestion is to WATER and get those pellets away from them and washed into the soil as quick as possible. You may be surprised to see some of them come back for you. I hope so anyway!

    Bookmark   June 7, 2014 at 7:46PM
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jim1961 Zone 6a Central Pa.

I did something similar last year with fertilizer.
From what I understand alfalfa can get real hot...

Maybe better to brew Alfalfa tea with your pellets?

This post was edited by jim1961 on Sat, Jun 7, 14 at 20:58

    Bookmark   June 7, 2014 at 8:52PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

I ordered Organic Alfalfa Meal from FEDCO this year and it's a nice, easy to apply powder that you can use to put a thin sprinkling of it if that's what you want to do. I had the pellets and they expand so much when they are wet that I found it hard to get the right amount in the right place, so I looked for something else. FEDCO was the first place I found organic alfalfa.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2014 at 9:03PM
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I agree with Seil, Cynthia. You goofed...this year. Do the same thing again next year and you have our permission to claim the "stupid" title fully! LOL! Good luck! I also agree with the advice to get that stuff away from the actual rose crowns/canes and get it dissolved into the soil. Kim

    Bookmark   June 8, 2014 at 2:17AM
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buford(7 NE GA)

I've done that. Well, more to the truth, my husband did. He was helping me put down a mix of alfalfa and bone/blood meal. He put WAY too much in a potted rose and before I noticed it, it was a goner. This year I am using the meal, but it also tends to get gloppy and then hard if it's dry. So I'm trying to break it up under the roses to work it into the soil slowly. The tea is too smelly and too much lifting of heavy pails to use.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2014 at 7:57AM
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dublinbay z6 (KS)

I'm surprised to hear that alfalfa is so "hot." I thought organics like alfalfa were supposed to be safer than chemical fertilizers--partly because organics/alfalfa work more slowly.

You didn't feed the roses something else earlier, did you? (Too much fertilizer with the two combined?)

When I use the pellets, I spread them out to the drip line rather than in towards the central cane. Maybe that would help in the future.

I water pellets and they swell up as you described. I consider that normal behavior--unless I take the time to water them even more thoroughly so that the pellets break down into "goo." But that is normal also--in my garden.

I am not aware that either way has ever harmed the roses, so I'm more inclined to think that excessive water (rain and your hose) may be the culprit--particularly if the canes suffered some cold damage and perhaps needed to be pruned down much closer to the base. Cold damaged canes will sometimes produce a spring bloom, but then decline rather precipitously immediately afterwards. It's like the first blooming used up the little energy they had left after a brutal winter.

I hope as the soil dries out that your roses perk up and start blooming again.


    Bookmark   June 8, 2014 at 8:50AM
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michaelg(7a NC Mts)

Alfalfa has more nitrogen than manure does, and it should not be piled up to the point where it can heat up. A layer one pellet deep will do no harm.

Although I fertilize roses at planting time and about every six weeks, I don't recall harming a plant with fertilizer. I'm not bragging on myself, just making the point that fertilizer is not harmful unless overdone.

I guess Cynthia's baby was harmed by ammonium salts that the bacteria formed when they broke down the protein in the alfalfa. I would scrape the alfalfa back from the plant and flood it with water.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2014 at 11:05AM
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nippstress - zone 5 Nebraska

Thanks so much for the sympathy, support, and advice, folks. I will concede the "mistake" label for this year, Seil & Kim, but it still frustrates me. I'm pretty sure the damaging factor was how close the alfalfa pellets rolled to the center of the cane and settled there as they puffed up. I usually do keep the alfalfa out to the drip line as several of you recommended, or at least several inches from the main cane, but with this kind of rain, everything washed to the nearest obstacle, and that unfortunately was the nearest rose cane.

The ones that immediately bit the dust were the ones that weren't intended for any alfalfa at all, being 3-4 inches tall and very tender stems. There weren't any surviving canes on virtually all of my roses, particularly these smallest ones, so it wasn't the "phantom growth" Kate mentioned that I've learned to recognize as not genuine winter survival. It only took a few hours for those canes to be fried by the combination of trapped moisture and ammonium salts. Having a name to call the toxic soup helps MIchael, and I wouldn't like to be swimming in ammonium salts either. As soon as I saw this happening, I pulled back the sopping alfalfa from the bases out to safe distances and we've had more rain twice since then with a mostly clear base. I did take your advice and pour clean water at the base of those worst affected, though I had to wade through calf deep ponds to do so, but I hesitate to do a full bed-wide spray since the ground really is sopping wet still (and more rain expected tomorrow). Like Kippy, I'm afraid of running the opposite extreme and drowning the poor things.

One important difference from previous years is that I've always used alfalfa hay rather than pellets, since that's all my local farm store had in 50 lb. bales of pure alfalfa. I've still never found the alfalfa meal around here and I can't face ordering 250 lbs of it, though it's nice to know a source prairiemoon. Similarly, I agree with Jim that alfalfa tea would be safer but I can't fathom brewing enough for 750 roses. I was so pleased to find the alfalfa pellets because they handle easier, but the benefit of hay is that it has more retained fiber and doesn't roll. It at least stays where I put it, and has more of the consistency of the surrounding leaves. I think I'm going back to the hay next year.

It is reassuring to hear others make these kinds of mistakes, themselves (bluegirl, floridarose) or by proxy (buford). Glad to be an excuse to have you join the rose forum sjerin, and do stop back in to share your experiences now and then! I was checking on them today, and the rose I had pictured (a Color Magic) has absolutely black stems for the full foot of its length, but seems to be trying to put on some new growth at the end of it. That cane is probably still toast, but hopefully the inclination to put out growth will trigger some new basals that survive better. Believe me, though, that was one of the better cases - at least a dozen are so fried there's nothing to see, and another dozen are moving in that direction.

This also means I need to put off the "death march" for a few more weeks to see if these survive. Usually some time in mid-June I pull the tags from roses that really have died over the winter and aren't coming back. I used to keep the tags up all year in case they come back late (Valentine grew back from own roots a full year later), but I've discovered it's just discouraging to see those tags with empty spaces. As soon as I pull the tags, I mostly stop fretting about them, and planning next year's purchases (always a good way to cheer up a rose fiend!)

Thanks again for helping to cheer me up. Y'all are good folks!

    Bookmark   June 8, 2014 at 8:08PM
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jim1961 Zone 6a Central Pa.

Oh you have 750 roses Nippstress... nah alfalfa tea would not be an option then... :-/
Mistakes is how we learn Nippstress...

    Bookmark   June 8, 2014 at 8:30PM
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You're welcome, Cynthia. How do you think everyone go so "smart"? Most likely because we've all made the same mistakes and learned by killing plants. It requires a lot of corpses to get that smart! Kim

    Bookmark   June 8, 2014 at 8:44PM
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CossecaRose_z3(Zone 3)

Hello everybody - thank you Cynthia for posting your troubles! I am a bit new at trying to supplement my roses with anything more than some CIL rose fertilizer and last year I started putting manure (well rotted, in bags,).

But just yesterday, my husband was telling me that he has some leftover alfalfa pellets, and asked me if I wanted to give some to my roses... Well, I'm really glad you and others have posted about how to put it around your roses, and what to watch out for, and that I'm reading this before putting it down around my roses!

I read alot of different books about roses and their care (okay, mostly to drool over the pictures!) but none of them say in such a detailed way how to put something like alfalfa pellets down properly!

Every Spring it's like I'm desperately hanging by a thread until I see at least one rose bloom in the garden. They're mostly all 1 to 2 year-old plants so there aren't that many yet. (I have a few 5-6 year old bushes too, at least). And they're still just in buds.

Thank you for sharing your info and experiences!!!

    Bookmark   June 9, 2014 at 7:37AM
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hoovb zone 9 sunset 23

Hey, stop it.

You are growing roses in zone 5 Nebraska, likely one of the most challenging places in the US to grow roses. You get at least one accidental mistake per year, gratis. Anyone can grow roses in Southern California. It takes real skill to grow them where you are.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2014 at 10:02AM
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Susanne27(5a Ontario Canada)

Not stupid, just a perfect storm of conditions all coming together. I'm sorry to hear about your losses. I only have one long row of HT's, about fifteen, so it isn't much work for me to brew up alfalfa tea. I really had no choice because I can't find pellets here, only cubes and these are quite large. I am always amazed at the potency of this brew. It smells like manure after only a week of brewing.
Here's hoping you have some good recoveries.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2014 at 8:06AM
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nippstress - zone 5 Nebraska

CossecaRose - glad to be of help and very timely for your alfalfa use in your own garden. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Learn from the mistakes of others - you can't live long enough to make them all yourself". Of course in my case, there's the quote, "Good decisions come from experience. Unfortunately, experience usually comes from bad decisions."

You're right Susanne that this was a collection of unfortunate events, but I'm vowing not to do the same next year, or even for the remainder of this one. And thanks for the allowance of one major mistake at least per year Hoovb guilt-free, and for helping to redirect some of the guilt. I still think folks like CossecaRose in zone 3 have it way tougher than I do, since most if not all of the HTs simply won't survive that cold without hauling inside protection for the winter, and I can get away with even teas if I'm careful. Still we do have our challenges in Nebraska, but at least for the time being we have plenty of water. A major storm headed for our area missed us thankfully, so we may actually have a whole dry week to recover.

Thanks again everyone!


    Bookmark   June 10, 2014 at 2:50PM
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Cynthia, hope your roses are recuperating and hope they will survive. Once they tide over the crisis, hopefully they will take off due to the growth stimulatory effect of alfa alfa. Keep us posted as to how they are doing.
Good luck, Madri

    Bookmark   June 10, 2014 at 8:30PM
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