Budding Made Easier

by John Mattia

Article is from the 1997 American Rose Annual, reprinted with permission
All rights reserved
See addendum for his new experimental method of rooting rootstock


Sooner or later all rosarians get the idea that it would be fun to multiply their favorite roses in their gardens. However, after reading conventional rose manuals on the common method of satisfying this urge — the grafting process called budding — most rosarians discard the idea. It seems just too complicated. The manuals relate that you need special grafting tools and supplies to bud roses — and that you must obtain special plants called rootstock — and that you need to contort yourself into a backbreaking position to perform the task on rootstock planted in the ground. It's enough to skip the chapter on budding and look into some other aspect of the hobby.
Well, budding roses is really a simple task. It requires no special tools or supplies. The rootstock you need probably is growing wild within a stone's throw of your garden — and is free for the picking. And there's a convenient back saving way to bud roses without bending yourself into a hairpin to get at the base of the rootstock.


Budding is a form of asexual reproduc­tion by which an axil bud from a desired rosebush is grafted to the stem of a wild, vig­orously growing root-stock. Axil buds are located on rosebush stems just above where the stipules emerge into leaf clusters. Normally, if you cut back a rose stem to an axil bud, the bud breaks and grows into a new stem that eventually yields a rose bloom. If, instead, you successfully graft this axil bud to the stem of a rootstock, the bud breaks — but this time to start a new rosebush that carries all the genetic material of the original rosebush. The new rosebush is a clone that grows and blooms like the original one that supplied the axil bud. Most books on rose culture cover budding tech­niques in detail. Once a rosarian gets into budding roses, the shortcuts and enhancements of starting one's own roses become evident. They are the focus of this article.

Virtually all hybrid teas and floribundas and many shrubs sold in the United States are started by bud grafting. Even miniature roses are being grafted by some nurseries today. It's a quick, efficient and economical way to reproduce — or clone — roses. If you purchase a rosebush you may see a tag on it that states that it is illegal to reproduce that rosebush by "asexual" reproduction. (Remember, budding is a form of asexual reproduction.) That information means that the rosebush is patented and, for 20 years, the breeder has rights for a fair monetary return for his or her invest­ment in producing the new rose. By honoring the patent, rosarians maintain the breeder's incentive to continue providing us with new varieties. There are, however, plenty of roses whose patents have expired, including such favorites as Peace, First Prize and Royal Highness. Check Modern Roses or the Combined Rose List for introduction dates and patents. Any rose patented before 1977 is no longer under patent and is now free to be reproduced by asexual reproduction.

A budding knife is generally the first tool rose manuals recommend buying if you want to get into bud grafting. A budding knife? It looks like a jackknife with a very sharp blade. Use the knife to make a T-cut in the rootstock stem into which you slip the axil bud to be grafted. The knife may also have a tapered handle to assist in slip­ping the bud into the T-cut. I own two budding knives and never used them mainly because they constantly need sharpening. Instead, I find that single-edge razor blades, which can be purchased for pen­nies apiece, work better than any expensive budding knife I've ever tried. Once a razor blade dulls, I simply discard it and use a new one.
The other device the manuals tell you to buy is a budding tie to bind the grafted bud of the desired rose variety to the stem of the root-stock. You can buy these ties la­beled as grafting strips or budding ties. Nursery grafting tape, raffia, or grafting wax also can be pur­chased for this purpose. From ex­perience, I find that these commercial budding products all work well; however, they are no better than ordinary No. 64 rubber bands you can buy in bulk at a stationery store. Cut the rubber band, and you have a cheaper, readily available 4-inch long budding tie.

The odds are that you have the rootstock you need for budding within a short distance of your rose garden. In most of the northern half of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, the rootstock of choice is Rosa multiflora. It's a species rose that grows as a weed in uncultivated fields and along highways. In some sections of the United States, multiflora grows so wildly that it is considered a noxious weed. When multiflora blooms, it is covered with hundreds of tiny, white, sweet-smelling blooms. Multiflora varieties come with or without prickles. Both work fine as rootstock, but it is easier to bud on the variety with­out prickles.

Another common rootstock is Dr. Huey, a climber that was popu­lar early in the 20th century but is now used as rootstock by most commercial rose nurseries in the United States. Dr. Huey throws long climber canes that yield dark crimson, semi-double blooms with attractive yellow centers. The easiest way to obtain this rootstock is to find a U.S.-produced rosebush whose graft is dead but whose root-stock has survived and sent out Dr. Huey shoots. These shoots, frequently called suckers, emerge from below the dead knot of a previously grafted rosebush.

If you have access to either multiflora or Dr. Huey growing on your property, leave it there, and each fall judiciously prune some stems from the bush to start rootstock. By next fall, these vigorously growing wild roses will replenish themselves with more stems than you removed. Or you can plant one or both in an out-of-the-way spot in your backyard, but it's a job to keep these vigorously growing roses from taking over their surroundings.
Generally, multiflora produces a better root system in clay soils while Dr. Huey performs better as a root-stock in sandy soils. Multiflora therefore is the preferred rootstock in the Northeast, for instance, where soils tend to be heavy clay. However, satisfactory rosebushes result from bud­ding on either rootstock. Other types of rootstock used by rosarians include Rosa odorata, Rosa canina and, in the South, Fortuniana.

In late fall, rootstock cuttings are buried in sand. All axil buds on the rootstock cutting are removed except the top two, which are exposed above the ground. Oak leaves are placed loosely over the cuttings to protect them in the winter, and are removed when the buds begin to swell in the spring.


When exposed buds form their first leaves, the cuttings are re­moved from the sand and will show the callus and first roots on the hurled end of each stick.

Gather wild multiflora for root-stock in November after a killing frost has ended the growing season. Prune first-year-growth stems, at least the thickness of a pencil, in 10-12 inch lengths. With a razor blade, remove completely all the axil buds from each rootstock stick except for the first two at the top of each stem. Take extra care to totally remove the axil buds that will be below ground level once the rootstock is grafted and growing into a desired rosebush. Any bud, even a portion of one, left on the original rootstock stem below ground might develop into a "sucker" on a grafted rosebush. Suckers, being lower on the budded rosebush than the desired grafted growth above them, have first call on the nutrients the roots send up the bush. By sapping these nutrients, suckers from the rootstock eventually take over the plant and kill the desired growth above it. The best way to re­move an axil bud in preparing a rootstock stick is to cut it off the stem with a razor blade. It's also advisable, but not necessary, to shave off any prickles in the area where the grafting will occur. If removed, they won't accidentally prick you when  you are grafting a bud to the root-stock stem. Gather the rootstock stems into bundles of about a dozen sticks each, and bind them together at the top and bottom with rubber bands. In a 2-gallon pot filled with sand, bury the bundled sticks upright just to the point where the two top buds were left on the stem. Place several bundles of sticks in each pot. Bury the pots in the ground in a protected spot, (against the foun­dation on the south side of a house, for instance), for the winter. The top of the pot should be at ground level. The tops of the bundled sticks with the remaining axil buds must be exposed above the sand in the pot. Place oak leaves over the top of the pot to minimize sun-scalding of the exposed part of the stems. A collar of plastic or aluminum circling the top of the pot holds the oak leaves in place. During the winter, the buried end of each stick will callus over with white plant tissue from which roots will grow.
In the spring, leave the bundled rootstock sticks in the pots until the exposed buds break and develop 1-to 2-inch stems with leaves. (In Connecticut, this occurs by mid-April.) By this time, the bottom ends of the sticks will not only have callused, but white root hairs will start growing out of the callus. Some, in fact, will develop a tiny ball of white, succulent roots.

When I started budding roses 17 years ago, I had a back problem. It was exacerbated anytime I bent over to graft a bud into the base of a rootstock at ground level. I knew there had to be a more comfortable way to bud roses with or without a back problem. The answer was to grow the root-stock in pots. Then, when it came time to graft onto a rootstock, the pot could be placed on a bench, and the bud grafting could be performed in a comfortable position. As soon as the rootstocks are carefully lifted out of the ground in the spring, plant them about 3 inches deep in a pot of soil. Two-gallon pots work fine. Fill them with a mixture of equal parts garden soil and compost, and a little course sand. Once the root-stock is planted, firmly tamp the soil around the stem with your hand. Leave the potted rootstocks in dappled sunlight for about two weeks. By then, the roots will become estab­lished in the soil, and the stems will start growing in earnest. At this point, it's time to move the potted rootstocks into open sunlight. In about two months, the rootstock will be established in the pot and ready for grafting.
An area that gives the potted rootstocks five to six hours of sun­light, preferably in the morning, is best. It's vital to keep the potted bushes well watered. In the heat of summer, it may be necessary to water them once or twice daily to prevent the soil in the pots from drying. Allowing grass to grow along the sides of the pots shields them from direct sun­light and helps to keep the soil moist for a longer period.



The outer living skin of the shield is separated from the woody growth beneath it. (above, left)

The budshield is ready for insertion into the rootstock (above, right). A T-cut is made into the rootstock and the budshield is inserted into the stem (below, left). The budshield is securely tied to the rootstock (below, right).

Many rose manuals describe the budding process in detail with excellent diagrams or photographs. Consult them for the process. Here are some hints you won't find in the manuals.
— When preparing the bud shield, always direct the cut away from your body. That way, if the razor blade or budding knife slips off the rose cane, it's less likely to nick you if the stroke is away from your body.
— Keep the potted rootstock well watered once they start growing, but don't water the bushes the day you plan to bud. Resume the daily water­ing the next day. For some reason, the number of successful budding takes diminishes if the grafting occur when the rootstock contains excessive water. Don't let the rootstocks dry out, however, either immediately before or after the grafting. Dry rootstocks when budding are a sure way to minimize the number of successful grafts.
— The hardest part of budding is pulling away the green outer skin on the rootstock stem from the woody part beneath it in order to insert the grafting bud into the T-cut you made. The skin separates easily if the bush is succulent and has been kept well watered. Gently lift each flap of the T-cut with the sharp corner of the razor blade starting where the two cuts inter­sect. If the skin doesn't lift away easily with the razor blade, gently insert your thumbnail under each flap of the T-cut and pry away the green skin.
— To minimize the growth of weeds in the pot, cut newspaper several pages thick in a circular shape that is roughly the diameter of the pot. Next make a straight cut halfway across the circle of newspaper. Slide the straight cut to the stem to cover the top of the soil with the newspaper. The newspaper, now on top of the soil, also serves as a mulch to help keep the soil moist. — If you obtain a hard-to-get vari­ety and have only a few rootstocks, you can graft two buds on the same stem to raise your chances of get­ting a successful take on that plant. Graft the two buds on opposite sides of the rootstock, one slightly higher than the other. Don't celebrate — or worry — if both buds take and start growing. Eventually one bud dominates, generally the lower one, and the second one dies off. The same principle applies here as with suckers that break below the graft. When the grafted bud clos­est to the roots develops into a stem it gets the first and dominant call on the nutrients being shipped up the plant. In time, the second bud, even if it develops into a stem, dies.

A successful grafted bud begins to swell in early spring (above). After the rootstock stem is cut off above the graft, the grafted bud begins to develop into a new rootstock (middle). Potted budded bushes can be grown indoors under shop lights in the winter to give them a head start for developing into rosebushes once placed outdoors when the growing season begins


You should know if the grafting effort was successful about three weeks after you inserted the bud into the stem. By this time, the rubber band may have disintegrated and fallen away from the bud shield. If the band is still on the grafted shield, carefully remove it. Look closely at the bud and the shield. If it's not black or dried out brown, the odds are that the bud graft was successful. Don't give up on the graft if the bud itself appears dead, but the shield around it looks either green or reddish brown. If the shield is alive, the odds are that the guard buds next to the main dead bud will develop and eventually break into a new rosebush. Continue to water successfully budded bushes for the rest of the summer. To minimize their drying out, place them back in the tall grass where they continue to get five to six hours of sunshine.

Some rosarians, especially those in the South who have a longer growing season, will cut off the rootstock stem just above the grafted bud as soon as they know they have a successful take. Since the roots of the rootstock are still producing nutri­ents, these nutrients are taken in by the grafted bud and force it to break into a new rosebush. In Connecticut, with our short growing season, I wait until the following spring to cut back the rootstock to give it added time to develop a more extensive root system.

It is feasible to grow grafted rootstocks, often called maidens, un­der lights indoors. I grow about 30 maidens under lights every winter. A maiden started indoors can grow into a mature rosebush in one season in a northern climate. In fact, maidens grown indoors in the winter and then planted in the ground outdoors in the spring have produced Queens by the following September.

To grow maidens indoors, thor­oughly spray the rootstocks with a general insecticide and miticide late in the fall. Leave the rootstocks outdoors until mid December, allowing them to go into dormancy. At this time, bring them indoors and cut off the main stem of the rootstock bush about a quarter inch above the grafted bud shield. Leave them in a dark garage where the temperature hovers around 40 degrees.

(Some rose manuals recommend that you cut only halfway through the same side of the stem just above the grafted bud and bend the stem. The theory behind this practice is that the nutrients rising from the roots, in attempting to feed the partially severed stem above the graft, will more quickly stimulate the grafted bud. I have found no difference in the rate of successful breaks of buds or the speed of growth whether the stem above the graft is totally cut off or severed only halfway through it.) By early January, the grafted buds begin to swell. The pots are now brought into the warmer cellar, and placed under lights. I place all 30 on one picnic table under two shop florescent light fixtures, each containing two 40-watt florescent tubes. I currently don't use special grow lights. I've never noticed any difference in the growth or development of rosebushes whether they are placed under grow lighting or under regular shop lights.

Next growing season

In one to three weeks, the buds will break and vigorous stems will develop. Since the bushes were sprayed late in the season and most of the bush above the graft was re­moved, the chances of encountering insects over wintering on the maidens indoors are minimal. Occasionally mites or aphids may be found. They are easily combated by dabbling them with rubbing alcohol, diluted to half strength with water, on a cotton swab.
Keep the bushes growing indoors throughout the winter and until all danger of frost has passed in the spring. It's not unusual for some maidens growing in the cellar to yield blooms within seven weeks after they are placed under lights. The blooms are a pleasant sight for a rosarian in the dead of winter. The maiden bushes should be carefully staked as they are moved outdoors — in early May in Connecticut. First place them in dappled sunlight for about a week to enable their leaves to adjust to the sun's rays. Then move the maidens into full sun for about two weeks. Within a week or two of being placed in open sunshine, the maidens develop vigorous basal breaks. It's now time to plant them in the ground. Pop them out of the pots without disturb­ing their roots and then plant them. By September, these winter-started maidens produce blooms worthy of rose shows.

Budded bushes left outdoors for the winter should be cut back as soon as the growing season begins, in early April in Connecticut. Like the ones grown indoors, maidens put out first stems that grow vigorously. It's important to stake a developing stem as soon as it has two sets of leaves to prevent a strong wind from ripping the new growth away from the root-stock. It takes up to two years for the graft to become strongly attached to the rootstock stem.
Budded bushes growing in pots that break in the spring can also be replanted anytime during the grow­ing season, provided you remove them from the pot without breaking the root ball. It's generally safer, how­ever, to wait until the fall to allow the fledgling rosebush a chance to mature in the pot before giving it a permanent home in the ground.


October 2004 Addendum:

I hate to describe a new rose technique I discovered until I can repeat it at least two, if not three times. But here's one that worked for me for the first time last winter which I plan to repeat this year, which is even easier that the rooting of multiflora I described a few years back.
1 -- I filled 10 two-gallon pots with good garden soil.
2 -- I cut 10-12 inch long multiflora sticks and gouged out all the eyes except the top three of the stick. (If your variety of multiflora has thorns, I recommend you remove them only to facilitate budding next summer.)
3 -- Recut the bottom of the stick just under where you gouged out the bottom eye of the stick...and then lightly score the opposite side of this stick for about 3/8 inch up from the bottom. (This increases the callusing from which roots will occur.)
4.-- Push the stick about 2.5 - 3 inches into the soil, and firm the soil around the stick.
5 -- Place the pots in a "semi-protected" area...I put them out in the heavy woods among the trees at the end of my yard.
All 10 plants took and were solidly rooted by mid July for grafting.
One other observation. Sticks that are about the thickness of a pencil to slightly larger make better budding plants than thicker multiflora sticks. The former tend to be more succulent and the skin separates easier in T-budding. The skin on the thicker sticks becomes harder to separate as the summer progresses, and the skin also tends to develop  vertical cracks in it as its grows. Thus it is harder to find a clear area for budding.


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