In a classic case of bad timing, roses have slipped from their perch as America’s favorite landscape plant. In our hectic, time-starved lives, roses are a symbol of something beautiful that requires very high maintenance and specialized knowledge to look its best. In this day and age, that is only half true.
Yes, the classic, long-stemmed beauties you find in florist shops are hard to duplicate at home. The relentless quest by rose breeders for the next “Peace” or “Chrysler Imperial” has given way to a battle to perfect “carefree” shrub rose varieties like “Knock-out” and “Flower Carpet”. Rose hobbyists, addicts who seek the largest, showiest blooms, are fewer these days. The general public is discovering roses with non-stop bloom, that provide showy masses of color when planted as low-maintenance landscape shrubs, instead of being hidden away in dedicated “rose gardens” drenched with poisonous sprays and powders.
The difference between high-maintenance and “carefree” roses can be summed up in two words: “Own Root”. Own root means a plant that is the same plant, with the same pedigree, from the deepest root to the tip of its branches. Historically, successful roses have mostly been “grafted” hybrids; in other words the pretty and fragrant hybrid upper part is “welded” to the roots of a different rose variety, called the “rootstock.”
Rootstocks determine the hardiness, soil preference, mature size, and to some extent the disease resistance of plants. By grafting the rootstock of a hardy rose bush to the top of a less rugged rose with fancy blooms, rose growers can have it both ways. This is the same approach used to produce most orchard trees. The downside is that the rootstock, being stronger, wants to take over the plant, and if it’s allowed to grow branches it will dominate and choke off the hybrid part. It will become an ugly weed with insignificant blooms.
Imagine a rose rootstock that, in addition to being hardy and strong, also had gorgeous shiny leaves and bright, re-blooming flowers that magically dropped off as soon as they passed their peak. Imagine that this “super rootstock” also shrugged off the fungus diseases that need constant spraying to prevent, and was distasteful to Japanese beetles, aphids and other insects. Let’s suppose that this rootstock also produced a bushy, uniform, mounding shape that didn’t outgrow the space?
Welcome to the brave new world of “own root” shrub roses. No, they don’t have eighteen-inch stems with softball-size blooms in every color of the rainbow. No, they don’t even smell particularly sweet. However, inexperienced gardeners can plant them in pretty much any kind of soil, and expect them to grow and bloom dependably with very little care.
This “rose revolution” has dramatically changed landscape gardening over the past twenty years. We now routinely install roses in low-maintenance landscapes, as foundation shrubs and hedges and mass plantings. Annual feeding and an occasional “tough love” pruning typically provide stunning color from May until November. Additional care, like midsummer shearing, additional feeding and supplemental watering, make shrub roses even more spectacular.
To succeed with roses, seek out the best “own root” varieties and take the trouble to plant them properly. Watch this column for pointers on selection, planting and care of shrub roses. Or, if you’re a die-hard rose fancier who wants fragrant bouquets and blue ribbons at the garden club, take heart. New grafted roses are introduced every year, and old favorites can still be found. We can help you succeed with those as well.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape makeovers. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.