Perhaps you have been thinking about starting or redesigning your garden. If so I hope you will be adventurous enough to explore the charms of growing roses, beyond the popular Knockout™ cultivars. Because most rose varieties benefit from regular attention, their cultivation makes you feel like a true gardener and the results are so worth it!
There are so many roses, how do you choose and where do you start? In this article I will share some of my personal favorites.
When deciding which roses to try, do your homework. Look through catalogs. Go to local garden centers in April/May, when most of the roses are stocked. Browse the web. Ask your neighbors. Attend rose exhibitions in our area.
To discover which roses do well in the mid-Atlantic, check out rose displays in public gardens several times over the growing season. We are fortunate to have several rose gardens in the metropolitan area, including the Smithsonian Garden and the U.S. Botanic National Garden on the National Mall, the U.S. National Arboretum, Brookside Gardens in Maryland, Bon Air and Meadowlark Gardens in Virginia, and several more.
Of course all the usual steps for selecting the “right plant for the right place” apply. Know how much sunlight you receive at the planting site. (Roses like to sunbathe.) Improve your soil. Improve it again. (Roses are heavy feeders.) Make sure that water is accessible. Drip irrigation is helpful. (Roses do not like drought.) Acquire good pruners, a wide-brimmed sun hat, and stout gloves.
Take note of your preferences. What colors do you like? How important is fragrance to you? Do you want lots of blooms? Do you want roses primarily for cut flowers? Do you like the flower forms of old garden roses?
Although I may not always choose the perfect roses for our climate, I try to make selections that will do well in this area without heroic effort. I use organic fertilizer. I add compost twice a year or more. I choose not to use synthetic chemicals so I tolerate occasional black spot and partially munched foliage. All of that goes with the territory. (If you demand exhibition quality roses, you will need to use toxic chemicals.) I like fragrance, although I am willing to choose beauty over fragrance on occasion. My taste in form is eclectic. I adore the high-centered, ovoid buds of some hybrid teas and grandifloras, but I also love the cupped, quartered, and expanded forms of old garden rose blooms. I like both single and double flowers.
When it comes to color, I favor pale shades—light pink, mauve, and pale yellow. I also like strong colors—copper, red/yellow, and dark purple. I prefer dark green, glossy foliage but, truthfully, if the flowers are spectacular and the foliage is mediocre, I’ll still take the plant. Although I fancy recurrent (repeat blooming) roses, I find myself charmed by several old garden roses that bloom only once a year. The limited space of my row house garden nixes ramblers and vigorous climbers. (Again, do your homework, before you purchase.)
As I name my favorites, I will include a bit of a primer on how roses are classified. To prevent boring you, I will only include enough information to help my rose selections make sense. If you want further background, information abounds on the Internet and in print.
There are three major categories of roses: species, modern, and old garden roses. My roses fall in the latter two categories.
Old garden roses are those that were know to gardeners prior to 1867. Among the old garden roses I grow are Bourbons, and Gallicas, but there are an additional thirteen major classes. Most old garden roses only bloom once a year and many are vigorous growers. Old garden roses are among the most fragrant. Many are pest resistant. Their blooms have more variety in shape but are generally smaller than modern roses. Their color palette tends to vary from white to many shades of pink.
The modern roses in my garden, four of the eight major classes, include hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas, and shrubs. My shrub roses are a hybrid musk and several English roses, often called David Austin™ roses for their primary breeder. The latter are repeat bloomers that mimic the old garden roses in form, fragrance, and disease resistance—some, more successfully than others in my experience.
Hybrid teas are distinguished by large flowers that grow individually on long stems. Grandifloras have a similar growth habit, but their blooms may be smaller and tend more toward sprays. Floribunda roses often have smaller flowers and stems than hybrid teas and their flowers grow in clusters. In general, floribunda roses will flower more prolifically season long than will hybrid tea roses, but hybrid tea blooms will be more spectacular—closer to roses we find in florist shops. In rose competitions, a hybrid tea bloom is almost always selected as queen of the show, the highest honor. Breeding may have altered modern roses’ growth habits, but it has also increased susceptibility to pests and diseases and, in many instances, diminished fragrance.
With that background, I’ll cut to the chase. If I had to select my absolute favorite rose, well, I just couldn’t. I could probably pick my favorite five. Among hybrid teas, Granada would be one. This neon pink and orange bi-color is beautiful, fragrant, and very showy. Another favorite is Dainty Bess, a beautiful pale pink single rose with dark pink and yellow stamens. I find its flowers fragile—one good rain or stiff breeze can denude it of petals, but it’s so endearing that I overlook its ephemeral nature. My only red is Veterans’ Honor®, a hybrid tea with large, long lasting blooms.
Hybrid teas may command the lion’s share of the attention, but I find that floribundas definitely have their charms. When properly tended, they provide consistent blooming during the height of the summer. One favorite is the lavender Blueberry Hill™. Apricot Nectar (light apricot) is fragrant and attractive. If you are after unusual colors that thrive in the mid-Atlantic, you will find them among floribundas like Hot Cocoa™ (brown) or Cinco de Mayo™ (orangey ocher). I do not grow either, but see them happy in public gardens around town. My Ketchup and Mustard (red and yellow) is eye catching. I find people love it or hate it.
When July’s heat and humidity causes many of my roses to take a nap, Scarborough Fair®, an English shrub rose, blooms like a champ. This small bush with its sweet light pink cupped flowers is perfect for row house frontage. Try it on a townhouse patio in a large pot. Dead-heading by occasional sheering is an almost effortless way to keep it blooming all season.
Some of the English roses are among my favorites. Pat Austin™ (copper) puts on a spectacular show every May. Wow! Unfortunately, I do not find it a prolific bloomer at other times. The Dark Lady (dark fuchsia) beautifies my vegetable patch admirably while occupying little of its precious real estate. One note of caution—I find that David Austin™ rose bushes can grow larger than forecasted, so plan your spacing accordingly. I recently planted Desdemona™, a rose that Austin rates among its most disease resistant. Time will tell.
For me, no garden would be complete without at least one old garden rose. My love of these roses goes back to childhood, and they were the first roses I planted in my own garden. One of my favorite old roses is planted smack in the middle of my perennial bed. Souvenir de la Malmaison, a light pink Bourbon that looks and smells great and repeats well. If you prefer a darker pink try the Portland rose, Rose de Rescht. Both of these varieties will grace relatively small spaces. Next to Souvenir de la Malmaison, I grow the hybrid musk rose, Penelope. It has large clusters of small pale pinkish-yellow flowers. I find the two roses lovely in combination.
My Gallica roses bloom only once, but glorify the month of June and, thankfully, tolerate a bit of shade. They include the sublimely fragrant Belle Isis (light pink) and the temperamental Cardinal Richelieu (which I plan to replace with Tuscany Superb, another purple rose). If you want that quintessential old rose fragrance, try the Apothecary’s rose or one of cabbage roses (rosa centifolia).
So there you have it—my favorite roses, at least for now. There are always more roses to discover and new introductions to consider. Rose companies like Kordes, and rose trial competitions, like EarthKind™ are giving us more information about disease resistance and sustainability every year. So try roses! With a bit of diligence and luck, the reward will be worth the effort.
One final note, local garden centers have a limited variety of roses, particularly of old garden roses. Many of the roses in my garden were ordered through catalogs. Do not be afraid to order bare root roses for fall or early spring planting. I have been quite successful with them. If you have questions, remember the consulting rosarians of the Potomac Rose Society and their other helpful resources. Happy planting!