The latest varieties are more healthy and beautiful than ever

Sharon Cohoon,  – December 1, 2008

Roses, in a way, have come full circle. Early kinds ― the ones nature produced without our help ― were tough characters with healthy foliage, and many with fragrant blooms. But we weren’t satisfied with them. We wanted flowers that were bigger, had more petals, or came in different colors or shapes. Hybridizers put their energies into achieving these goals, and they succeeded.

As a result of this focus on flowers, roses lost other assets. Fragrance all but disappeared. Rose plants lost their round, bushy shape. Their vigor declined, and they grew increasingly susceptible to diseases such as black spot, rust, and mildew. To overcome these diseases, gardeners sprayed.

Most gardeners now don’t have time for such tedious chores, or aren’t willing to use so many chemicals. So hybridizers have changed focus.

“Our top priority is disease-resistant foliage,” says Weeks Roses hybridizer Tom Carruth. “We don’t even wait for bloom. If seedlings get mildew, out they go.”

These days you can have it all.

Uses in the landscapeRoses with good disease-resistance tend to be more vigorous overall. They bloom more and produce more plentiful and larger leaves. They look like flowering shrubs, not just canes with flowers at the tips, which makes them attractive in the landscape even when they’re not in bloom.

As for fragrance ― a recessive trait that tends to be linked to weaknesses, according to Carruth ― hybridizers are succeeding here too. Carruth’s ‘Strike It Rich’, a 2007 introduction, bears flowers with a fruit-and-spice scent.

So stop avoiding roses because you thought they were difficult. The latest hybrids are as easy as they are beautiful. Use the bushy kind as you would any other flowering shrub, to hedge fences or line walkways. Treat them as the backbone of a border combined with perennials, annuals, and herbs. Train the climbers up walls, pergolas, or arbors, or let them casually ramble up trees. But go ahead and use them ― they’re too perfect to pass up.

Best of the bunch

All-America Rose Selections (AARS) winners are not the only good roses for landscaping, but they’re excellent choices, with proven performance in two-year trials. Hybridizers send their best seedlings to the nonprofit research group AARS for trials in test gardens throughout the United States. During the trials, the plants are grown with minimal amounts of fungicides. Then jurors vote for the best varieties by secret ballot and are instructed to give disease-resistance high priority.

Caring for roses

Start with a strong rose variety; give it good soil and a sunny spot.

Planting: Dormant roses are usually sold in plastic containers or fiber pots. Though labels may suggest planting fiber pot and all, plants get off to a quicker start if you remove pots carefully. Dig a hole deep enough so the plant’s bud union (the grafting point) will sit at ground level in mild climates, or a couple of inches belowground in cold ones. Position the rose in the hole and fill in around it with soil amended with compost. Water slowly and thoroughly. Add more soil as needed.

Water: Irrigate deeply once a week. Plants need less when rains are frequent, more in sandy soils and hot climates.

Fertilizer: Start feeding when the canes have leafed out and produced about 4 inches of growth. Use a complete granular rose fertilizer according to package instructions. Continue to feed during the growing season.

Pruning: Annual pruning at the end of the growing season keeps your roses healthy and productive. Floribundas and shrub roses only need to be cut back by one-fourth. Give climbing roses a few years to develop long, flexible canes. Then prune the lateral growth back to two or three buds.