Roses without fear

Rugosa rose 'Hansa'                                          F.D. Richards/Flickr

Rugosa rose 'Hansa'                                          F.D. Richards/Flickr

Few common plants are more intimidating to the average gardener than the rose, a flowering shrub that occupies a peculiar place in our garden fantasies.

On one hand, we think of it as the very essence of perfection in form, color and fragrance. On the other hand, we believe it's a fussy, disease-prone prima donna, requiring a grueling routine of feeding, spraying and pruning. These two ideas meet in the widespread conviction that raising beautiful roses is an arcane skill inaccessible to the average person.

Not true! Unless you're hoping to win prizes as an exhibitor of hybrid tea roses -- an activity that has its cult-like qualities -- you can have roses in abundance without pain and suffering.

All you really need to do is adjust your thinking and expand your horizons. Hybrid teas – the classic roses -- are the most susceptible to disease and pests, and the most likely to break your heart by failing to thrive. But the rose clan has many branches, and several classes of rose are especially carefree, requiring no more fussing than the average azalea.

In fact, your unruffled attitude toward other flowering shrubs is precisely the model you may want to adopt toward roses. Do you fret when a few azalea flowers are tattered by insects? Do any of the leaf illnesses that plague rhododendrons keep you awake nights? Of course not -- you value these shrubs for their seasonal abundance of flowers, and only intervene when the well-being of the shrub as a whole seems threatened.

"Roses are a lot tougher than you think," says Lance Waldheim, author of "Roses for Dummies" (Hungry Minds, 2002). "If it's landscape color you're after, it's hard to beat a repeat flowering rose, which probably has the longest bloom period of any shrub. The key thing is to stop obsessing and start taking a common sense approach."

Critical to this exercise is choosing the right rose. Breeding trends of 50 years ago favored long-stem hybrid teas and floribundas that got their reputation for frail health and chemical dependence the old-fashioned way -- they earned it. Those who would have carefree roses need to look elsewhere for garden-worthy subjects: To the old shrub roses that have endured for centuries, and to the products of modern breeding that emphasize disease resistance and general vigor.

Once you've begun with a healthy, robust rose known to thrive in the Northeast (regional differences do matter), you can conquer that other fear, namely that you will be forced to use a stew of garden chemicals.

Barbara Wilde packs a lot of chemical-free ideas into her book "Growing Roses Organically" (Rodale, 2002). She says plainly that satisfaction begins at the shopping stage: "The most important step you can take toward successful organic rose growing is to start with healthy roses."

Roses you can live include the most ancient, those once-blooming roses that have been around for centuries and are known for their outstanding vigor. These include the alba, centifolia, damask and hybrid gallica roses, all famous for their fragrance. These produce an overwhelming show in late spring or early summer, and are both hardier and more disease-resistant than roses that continue to bloom through late summer.

Damask rose 'Jacques Cartier'                   F.D. Richards/Flickr

Damask rose 'Jacques Cartier'                   F.D. Richards/Flickr

Of the repeat blooming roses, rugosas have to top the list. Virtually immune to disease and less appetizing to insects, they have such sturdy constitutions that neither wind nor salt spray can faze them, making them suitable  for seaside locations. Other repeat bloomers to consider are the polyanthas, hybrid musks, bourbons and hybrid perpetuals -- they aren't fuss-free, but they include many individuals that perform well under a wide variety of conditions.

"People need to do their homework and take selecting roses seriously, but there are roses available now that virtually anyone can grow,” Waldheim says.

How do you find them? One way is to look for roses from hybridizers who have staked their reputations on producing easy-care roses.

Some have European origins: The Meidiland roses from France, the David Austin roses from England, the Baum "pavement" or groundcover roses from Germany and the Poulson Towne and Country series from Denmark are all worth your attention. Outstanding for cold climates are the Explorer roses, developed by Felicitas Svedja of the Canadian Department of Agriculture. Named for Canadian explorers, these roses include 'William Baffin,' which Wilde calls "the hardiest climbing rose in existence."

In North America, the Conard-Pyle Co. in Pennsylvania teamed up with breeders in France to produce Star landscape roses, a new breed including the Romantica series. It also markets the Carefree series ('Carefree Wonder,' 'Carefree Delight'), the Meidiland hedge roses and the universally acclaimed 'Knock Out,' an All-America Rose selection of 2000. The Arena Rose Company, based in California, offers the Generosa, Renaissance and Palace series, also designed as undemanding landscape subjects.

Don't forget the little guys. Modern compact roses and miniatures bring rose-growing down to an easy-to-handle scale, and their small stature makes them excellent container plants.

The Flower Carpet collection marketed by Anthony Tesselaar produces plants no more than 24 to 32 inches tall. The Sunblaze series grows to a compact 18 inches, but true miniatures can be even smaller, and more are released every year than any other type of rose. The best of these will boast of an American Rose Society "Award of Excellence."

Finding antique stalwarts or new-fangled modern roses may require that you change your shopping habits. You may have to stop relying on Big Box stores and supermarkets, since they tend to order mass quantities of just a few varieties. If your local garden center is still stuck on hybrid teas, seek out these roses in mail order catalogs or online, where you'll find a much wider variety.

If you order by mail, you may well be planting bare-root plants, rather than specimens already leafed out in hefty containers. Don't be daunted. While they arrive looking like a bundle of dead sticks, bare-root roses quickly establish themselves. The care you must take with them is a small inconvenience given the greater chance that with the right variety, you'll have beautiful roses that bloom all summer without driving you crazy.

The right rose, sensible cultural practices and an appreciation for the over-all shrub, rather than the single perfect blossom are the keys to 21st century rose culture.

"The fantastic roses available today simplify things," says Waldheim. "Get over your fears, give them a try -- and lighten up."