The quest to grow a perfect hybrid tea rose has led many would-be gardeners down a path filled with heartache. Plunking down good money at the garden center on a cardboard box sprouting several thorny, bare canes while envisioning a garden filled with romance, fragrance and beauty often does not end well.
The first gorgeous flowers may make the gardener feel triumphant during the promising weeks of late May and June. Then summer heat and humidity bring the weaknesses of roses to the fore. Japanese beetles, black-spot, powdery mildew, canker, thrips, botrytis, aphids, crown gall and rose mosaic virus are but a few of the pests and diseases that can arise.
Roses require full sun, defined as a minimum of six hours per day during the growing season. They grow best in rich, well-drained soil and are heavy feeders. When planting a rose, dig a hole 2 feet wide and several inches deeper than the roots. Mix the existing soil with a generous amount of compost, and incorporate a slow-release fertilizer formulated for roses based on package directions. Discard big clumps of clay.
If you have purchased a potted specimen, center it in the hole and fill in with garden soil and compost mix. Roses ordered from online retailers are typically shipped as dormant, bare-root plants. Be sure to prepare a generous-sized hole and spread the roots over a cone-shaped mound of compost-laden soil. Whether purchased potted or bare-root, check to see if the plant is grafted. If there is a knob-shaped structure where the roots are joined to the stem, the rose is most likely grafted, i.e. the desirable top portion of the plant has been grafted to a more vigorous rootstock.
If the rose has been grafted, plant the graft point 2 inches below soil level to afford a bit of protection from weather extremes. In my experience, "own-root" varieties demonstrate good winter hardiness. If you have purchased a grafted rose, its chances of survival increase if you mound several inches of compost at the base of the plant heading into winter.
The selections of roses at most nurseries feature new varieties. Oldies but goodies can be hard to find, yet a rose that has made a gardener happy for decades will meet a novice gardener's needs, too. I asked a few dedicated rose enthusiasts their favorites. These roses are still in the trade, but may have to be ordered online from specialty rose growers.
My favorite is Rosa glauca, a species rose. It is covered with single pink flowers in early summer followed by pretty orange hips, the seed-containing fruits loved by birds and flower arrangers alike. Although it is 6- to 8-foot tall, somewhat gawky shrub, that fault is more than made up for by the foliage color, which is a meld of purple/gray/burgundy. It gets a bit of blackspot but remains mostly unscathed.
'Sombreuil' is a climbing tea rose, repeat blooming, with cream flowers tinged pink in a classic old rose form. 'Sombreuil' is extremely fragrant and has lived happily in my garden for more than 10 years. It looks great paired with burgundy-colored clematis growing through it. Japanese beetles like the light-colored flowers but are controlled by an early morning swim in a jar of soapy water.
Donna Catone, a master gardener who maintains an amazing garden featuring many heirloom roses and several modern varieties, likes the 'Knockout' series for their disease resistance and nonstop flowering. Breeders have come up with a nice color range in the series, including a yellow cultivar available this spring called 'Sunny Knockout.' She also loves 'Maiden's Blush,' an Alba hybrid. It blooms in early summer with loosely double, fragrant, blush-pink flowers. This shrub can get up to 5 feet tall with a graceful arching form.
We both agree that the ultimate roses for realists are rugosas. Rugosas, as a species, are disease-resistant, repeat-blooming and fragrant. They grow 3-5 feet tall, making them perfect for any garden. Topping my list is 'Schneekope' or 'Snow Pavement,' whose semi-double flowers are white, suffused with lilac. Ms. Catone rates the pure white, highly fragrant 'Blanc Double de Coubert' her ultimate rugosa. The roses finish their show with large, ornamental hips.
'Sally Holmes' is a superior climber we both love. It will climb to 6 or 7 feet and sports single flowers of palest creamy pink. It looks great paired with the tiny blue bells of Clematis 'Betty Corning.'
If your garden can't handle a huge climbing rose, or even a 5-foot-tall rugosa, try a miniature rose. 'Popcorn' comes highly recommended by a gardening friend. Rayford Redell, author of "The Rose Bible," agrees, stating, "If I could grow one miniature rose it would be 'Popcorn.' " Topping out at 18-24 inches, this mini is covered with white semi-double flowers sporadically throughout the summer.
Striving for rose perfection can try the patience of a gardener. If one is willing to follow the advice of Vita Sackville-West, the famed English gardener who created Sissinghurst, there is hope. Referring to roses she wrote: "As in one's friends, one learns to overlook their faults and love their virtues."
Carol Papas is a Penn State master gardener. Columns by master gardeners will sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Cooperative Extension agent.