Maintenance: Moving a Prickly Rose to a Safer Place

Rosa setigera is an early summer-blooming native with a variable growth habit. Depending on what you read, it grows from 3–4 feet to perhaps 12–15 feet. This one is certainly in the double digits. I clipped long canes from July onwards last year, and came to the conclusion that I would have to move the rose further from the sidewalk. Its thorns are numerous and sturdy; I would not want a neighbor dog or child to tangle with it. There would be yelping. There would be tears.

Meanwhile, at the south end of the rain garden, the Rudbeckia triloba and the Eupatorium rugosa conspired with the blue flag last fall to hide the Clethra alnifolia, so the Clethra needs to move too.

Simple. Move the rose into the bed of myrtle under the front window, and move the Clethra into the rose’s old spot. Simple, except for the part about moving the rose. Our soil, it turns out, is glacial outwash from the last Ice Age—lots of gravel.

 Moving a Rose

These instructions are meant for sturdy roses—in our neck of the woods, that includes shrub roses, and certainly Rosa setigera, but not hybrid tea roses.

Move roses while they are dormant; it’s much easier on the plant if it’s not losing water through its leaves while the roots are feeling shocked and trying to grow. Early spring is perfect. 

Check the weather forecast. Ideally, you want rain coming, as well as several cool days with nights above freezing. Additionally, the job will take some muscle, determination, clippers, and a sharp spade.

Protect yourself. Wear gloves and long pants so you don’t get too scratched up. While this particular rose has big, sturdy thorns that can really rip skin, I consider the roses with finer thorns that break off to be more hazardous. Those finer thorns get under your skin easily and are difficult to remove.

Prepare the new spot. The new spot should be well drained and not have recently had a rose in it. Remove any plant cover from the area, which should be at least as large as the top of the hole you plan to create when removing the rose from its current spot. 

Cut straight down around the perimeter of the hole, and put the soil on a tarp nearby. Don’t worry about getting it exactly right—you can adjust the new hole, once you’ve dug up the rose.

Protect your rose. Trim the rose back to approximately a foot or so. Prune the rose back to just inside the cut line you are envisioning that you will follow.

Put a tarp out within spade’s reach. 

Dig the rose up. Use a spade to cut a circle around the rose. The spade will go straight down, while a shovel will go into the soil at an angle that will cut the roots too close. Roses grow deep, and the roots get big and woody, so make sure your spade is clean and sharp. 

Make sure your clippers are clean and sharp too.

Digging up Rosa setigera. Photographed on March 17, 2020.

Go all the way around the rose, removing loose soil gently. Throw it on to the tarp. Be careful not to break off the smaller roots—they tend to be the ones that take up water and nutrients. 

As you go further down, try rocking the plant occasionally to see if you are near the bottom. Once it rocks, you are nearly there. This hole turned out to be about 3˝ deeper than the spade blade is long.

Finally reaching the bottom of Rosa setigera’s rootball. Photographed on March 17, 2020.

You may find that you have to cut a root or two at the bottom. Leave them as long as you can. Leave the rose standing there while you finish digging the matching hole in its new location.

Now that you know how deep the hole needs to be, finish digging the new hole.

Move the rose. Wearing gloves, pull the rose out, holding it where the roots and stems meet. Put it on a tarp to move.

Audition the new hole. Stand it in the new hole and figure out what adjustments the hole needs. It may need to be dug a little deeper, or it may need a little hill of soil for the roots to be spread out upon. This one certainly needed to be deeper. Adjust the hole as needed.

Rosa setigera, settled into its new spot. Photographed on March 17, 2020.

Plant the rose. You can add some well-aged compost to the soil that’s going back in the hole, but don’t make the mixture too different in texture. You do not want to end up filling the sturdy subterranean bowl you just dug with a fluffy, rich mix that the roots would be disinclined to leave. The roots would end up encircling the bowl, like a potted plant that needs frequent watering. As you fill the hole, tamp the soil down gently. Water deeply about once a week the first summer, if it doesn’t rain.

Fill the original hole. In this case, I moved the Clethra into the rose’s former spot. To do that, I partially filled the hole, and then put the Clethra in.

The relatively small Clethra perched in the spot left by Rosa setigera. Photographed on March 17, 2020.

I put soil under the roots that are sticking out so they would spread laterally, and then covered them with the remaining soil. After that, I pulled the leaf mulch that was there back over the soil.

Clethra, in its new spot. Photographed on March 17, 2020.

The rain started in the night, and by the time it was done Saturday afternoon we had had a couple of inches, so the soil is well settled in around these newly moved roots.

More posts about Rosa setigera.