Chris van Cleave: The Redneck Rosarian

CvCGardener, writer and speaker Chris VanCleave, also known as “The Redneck Rosarian,” was the Denver Rose Society’s guest speaker for the annual SymROSEium. “I’ve been growing roses all my life,” Chris said. “Roses are in my blood. And no matter where you are in your own life journey, no matter where you are in the country, there is a rose for you.”

Photo by Chris van Cleave. 

Before You Buy: Before you buy a rose, Chris says to make sure that you have a sunny location. Roses need six to eight hours of sun per days. He also advises getting a soil test. “It is money well spent. If you get your soil right, you can grow anything.” When you are selecting a rose, Chris recommends considering type, color, bloom, height and maintenance. Of these, maintenance is most important. “How much time and energy and effort are you willing to put in to your garden?” Chris asks. He noted that when his kids were younger and going to soccer practice, shrub roses were best, but as the kids grew and he had extra time on his hands, he challenged himself to grow roses that required a little bit more care.

Planting and Watering: For rose soil, Chris uses composted cow manure, topsoil, and mini pine bark nuggets. “I’m a very simple guy,” he explains, “and I don’t like really complicated formulas. I mix all three of those together in equal parts — my entire garden is planted in that.” Roses should be planted in holes at least two to four inches around and below the size of the container (or the root system for bare root roses) and fill in with the rose soil. He notes that you can trim the root system for the large anchor roots down by about a quarter, but you should not trim the thin fibrous roots, because that is how the plants take in nutrients.

After planting, the holes should be top-dressed with mulch. Mulch both helps the plant keep down weeds and retain moisture at its base. “And of course,” Chris adds, “you want to water. Water that plant in as soon as you plant it, and then water very carefully for the first month. After that, it can go into the regular watering program.” Chris has about 185 roses in his garden, and he hand-waters most of them early in the day at the base of the plant. They get about an inch of water per week. In the winter, the roses should be watered about once a month.

Feeding: Chris gives his roses snacks throughout the year. He’ll use fish meal, bone meal, blood meal or alfalfa meal, as well as mushroom compost and worm castings. “The theme there is the meal. A lot of these meals promote strong root systems, and that is what you want.”

To get “Wow” type of bloom, Chris fertilizes his roses about every six weeks. He alternates between well-rotted manure, all-purpose fertilizers and composted teas, typically composted manure teas or alfalfa teas. Chris makes his compost teas in a 30-gallon trash can. “The liquid teas help the roses absorb the nutrients much more easily.” He puts in about a cup of alfalfa meal per shrub (so 30 cups) and a half cup of Epsom salts per shrub (15 cups). He does not recommend alfalfa pellets as they tend not to break down in the garden. “We ramp it up to feed our entire garden and use about a gallon on each shrub. It’s ready to use when it starts to stink!”

Tools and Pruning: Chris believes that there are three essential tools for roses: a good pair of by-pass pruners, a pair of loppers (to cut large canes and reach the places where your arms won’t go), and a pair of gauntlet gloves. “You can see I wear long sleeves,” he jokes, “to hide the scars on my arms from all the years when I did not wear gauntlet gloves.” Anvil pruners, where the blades meet instead of bypassing one another, should be avoided. “When you use the anvil pruners, they tend to compress the cane when you make that cut and you can lose the cane.”

Pruning, Chris explained, re-invigorates the shrub and is essential to having good, healthy roses. He uses the three D’s of rose pruning: “Do you have anything dead, diseased, or damaged? If so, those are the first things that you take out.” Chris also uses a rule of thumb for the more modern type roses like hybrid teas, grandifloras and floribundas — if the cane is smaller than a number two pencil, he takes it out.

Chris prunes his roses in the spring because that is when the growth cycle begins. “It is my signal to help them begin well.” Here in Denver, Chris explained, “you are going to start pruning at the end of April and the first part of May.” You need to know your roses, because roses that only bloom once a year should not be pruned until after they bloom. “Once blooming roses only bloom on previous years’ growth.” For his old garden roses, Chris just tends to gently shape them up. For the more modern roses, he prunes them down to about 12 to 18 inches in height. In the fall, Chris does wind pruning. If there are canes that are six or more feet tall, the winter winds can rock the shrub and loosen the root structure. For those roses, Chris recommends cutting back canes so they are about waist high.

For climbers, Chris explains that the magic happens when you train them horizontally, instead of straight up. “All of these little buds will start to burst out. If you train your climbers outward, you will get fifty to a hundred times the blooms you would otherwise get.”

Final Words: Chris chairs the Helena, Alabama Beautification Board and this last year they partnered with Texas A&M to become the first municipality in the United States to host an EarthKind Rose Trial. “EarthKind Roses are roses that have been proven in zones throughout the US to stand the test of time.” The roses are planted, watered one time, and left for three years. One of his favorites is ‘Belinda’s Dream,’ a shrub rose hybridized by Dr. Bayse.

Chris can be found at  He is running for Vice President of the American Rose Society and asked that ARS members vote for him. “I run for office because roses matter.  People matter. And when you put those two things together, good things happen.”

This article was first published in “The Rose Window,” the publication of the Denver Rose Society, in May 2018.





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