Growing roses, among the most beloved residents of the garden, can be a bit trying. In fact, many gardeners have a love-hate relationship with their roses. We love their romance, fragrance, and form -- but we hate the disease and the perceived maintenance schedule. What's a gardener to do?
Are roses really as fussy as we believe? Can you grow a beautiful rose organically? Can you find a rose that both looks good and smells great?
Peter Kukielski, curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden, says no, yes, and yes.
In the Northeast, as in much of the country, black spot can be a plague. But Kukielski finds that the really tough roses can be both disease-resistant and beautiful. "Fool-proof" and "easy" aren¿t two words usually associated with growing roses, but Kukielski says that when you choose the right rose for the right conditions -- just as with other plants in the garden -- you can grow great roses organically. Even fragrant ones.
At the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, staff members keep a close eye on plant performance with monthly evaluations. Climbers, shrubs, antique, landscape -- you name it, they grow it. Here is a selection of what they've found to be the best for the Northeast and what you can find to put in your garden for a great display. These roses are all repeat bloomers, so you'll get flowers throughout the season -- not just one big burst in June. And most are hardy to Zone 5.
NYBG participates in the Earth-Kind rose program, developed by Texas A&M University to trial and recommend roses that do well without fuss or chemicals. Grow your roses in well-drained soil, and don't forget to add up to 3 inches of high-quality compost each year. You'll find that in most soils, you won't even need fertilizer. Really!
Double Knock Out ('Radtko') and Pink Double Knock Out ('Radtkopink'), two outstanding examples of the Knock Out series, showcase what landscape roses can do for the garden. Both flower from spring into fall with no deadheading. What they lack in fragrance, they make up for in ease. Use these shrubs, which grow about 4 feet high and wide, in a stand-alone bed, as a low hedge, or mixed in among perennials and other shrubs.
The Fairy Tale rose series from Kordes has enough wonderful roses to fill any garden. 'Kosmos', with double creamy-white flowers, and 'Floral', with double apricot flowers, are floribundas, which means they have several roses on each stem. Both grow about 3 feet high, are fragrant, and bloom in cycles, so you'll have roses all summer long.
There are great climbers to cover a wall or fence, as well. Today's climbers don't smother buildings, but rather look great against a sunny garage wall or on a trellis in the middle of the garden -- they're a good way to add a vertical element to all those mounding perennials. You can find modest growers in the 8-foot range, such as 'Rosanna', which has double salmon-pink flowers with a fruity fragrance. 'Sally Holmes' has big bunches of single white or pale pink flowers on each stem.
Rugosa roses are known to be hardy and disease-resistant; they also have some of the best perfume around. 'Therese Bugnet' received high marks at the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden; its double pink flowers on stems to about 6 feet keep coming. As a bonus, the shrub's red stems offer winter interest.
Old-fashioned roses fill the garden with romance. 'Ducher', a China rose (hardy to Zone 7), blooms in cycles with its fruit-scented, double ivory flowers. This shrub rose is easy to slip into the garden; it grows up to 6 feet and will give you a beautiful focal point for an island bed.
Although not strictly old-fashioned, David Austin roses certainly look that way with their big, full flowers and heady scents that add romance to the garden. Some of the top-performing shrub selections in New York include Heritage ('Ausblush'), jam-packed with petals of an antique-pink color and an intoxicating fragrance; Sophy's Rose ('Auslot'), a bright-red double with a tea scent; and Spirit of Freedom ('Ausbite'), a soft-pink double with a spicy scent.
Cold winters can kill off a rose, especially if it's grafted, where the top growth (the pretty flower you want) is attached to a hardy rootstock (the flower you don't want). Once the top dies, the rootstock takes over growing. Consider growing own-root roses, so when a stem comes up from the soil line, you won't have to wonder what it is.
Look for cold-hardy selections (down to Zone 4), such as those bred by Dr. Griffith Buck of Iowa State University (if they can handle Iowa, our Northeastern weather should be no problem for these roses). 'Carefree Beauty' blooms continually through the season with semidouble medium-pink flowers (you can deadhead for better flower production or leave some and enjoy the red hips that develop). 'Quietness' blooms with double light pink flowers that are highly fragrant.