The Feisty Ones
For many years, I avoided planting roses for myself or for clients. My misperception was that they were all divas that I would have to prop up with endless regimens of fungicides and insecticides and heavy applications of fertilizer. Then, in 2000, came the Knock Out series of roses—they're the ones you see displayed in massive seas of pink, scarlet, and yellow single or double flowers in the big-box stores.
I get the sense that some rosarians pooh-pooh the Knock Outs, perhaps because of their ubiquity, lack of intense fragrance, or the fact that the blooms, while prolific, are not as showy as those of some higher-maintenance roses. But they were my entrée into a world of durable roses I hadn't known about, so I'm indebted to them for that. And they really work hard. They are extremely disease-resistant, tolerant of imperfect soils (but not poor drainage), flower prolifically, and don't require heavy fertilization. They can be pruned liberally or chewed by deer and will bounce back. If you are thinking about trying out your first rose, consider a Knock Out.
Another rose that has been a friend to me is the rugosa rose, which comes more commonly in white, magenta, and pink, and less commonly in red and yellow, and even striped. It's native to Asian coastal areas, especially on sand dunes, which tells you that it's equipped to handle salt spray and dry soils. (In Ithaca, they've planted compact varieties of rugosa roses in the traffic medians, which are as hellish an environment for plants as there is.) I have several rugosas thriving on the baking south side of the house, where the soil gets really dry and I seldom get motivated to drag the hose all the way out there to water. Rugosa flowers aren't as showy as those of other kinds of roses, but their dark wrinkled leaves are really handsome, as are their rose hips. However (cue "Price Is Right" sad horns), there is some concern about the invasive potential of rugosa roses, especially as the climate warms.
It turns out there are a good number of beautiful roses one can grow organically and without a lot of fuss. Let's huddle with Kinderhook-based food and garden writer Kevin Lee Jacobs, whose popular blog, showcases both the earnest and irreverent sides of Jacobs's personality. His garden has been featured on the Garden Conservancy Open Days tours of Columbia County, and he has a cookbook, My Hudson Valley Kitchen, scheduled to come out in December 2016. He grows about 60 roses on the property he shares with his husband, the psychologist and presidential historian Will Swift, and their rescued beagle, Lily.
First, a disclaimer. "Roses really hate New York State," Jacobs says. "They prefer Paris and London, where they don't have to struggle with humid summers, frigid winters, and Japanese beetles." But Jacobs is not deterred from forging ahead optimistically with his rose garden in Columbia County and reporting his experiences on his blog.
It's Not So Thorny
What are some of the misconceptions people have about growing roses organically? "The biggest one is that people think you can't do it," Jacobs says. "But I have found that if hardy varieties are selected, and a sensible cultural routine is practiced, chemical controls are not necessary." He says that good soil preparation is key (loose, fertile soil with high organic matter), so roots can freely establish and water can infiltrate and drain well. He finds that in our climate, heavy mulching with shredded leaves before winter protects the plant's roots and crown from temperature fluctuations and thawing-heaving cycles.
Another misconception is that Japanese beetles—which love to munch on all plants in the rose family—will kill roses. "They will decimate the blossoms and leaves, but healthy roses always recover—they just might look like hell for a while," Jacobs says. Japanese beetles are more prevalent some years than others. "Some years I pluck the beasts off my roses and drop them into a jar of soapy water, while other years I have taken no action at all. The plants always bounce back."
A further misapprehension is that roses are complicated to prune or shouldn't be pruned at all.
"If you grow shrub roses, as I do, pruning is easy," he says. "Cut the shrubs back by one-third to one-half in early spring, after you notice the first budbreak." Climbing roses and ramblers require no pruning whatsoever, other than to remove dead canes, which can be done at any time of year. That said, Jacobs says you can prune climbers and ramblers if they need shaping or have outgrown their space—but they really are happiest if you leave them alone. Never prune in the fall, because that can interfere with a plant's signals to go dormant for the winter.
A final misconception Jacobs runs into: that roses will bloom happily in part sun. "That's not been true for any of my rose experiments," he says. "For instance, I had a 'New Dawn' that was blooming like mad, but as a nearby tree grew and shaded it over time, the blooming really slowed down. Full sun is key for best bloom." More advice about growing roses organically can be found on Jacobs's blog.
Pick These and Not Those
In selecting your first rose, Jacobs advises that you avoid the hybrid tea type roses. "In our region, they attract every ailment you can imagine," he says. Instead, he recommends some of the old-time roses like 'New Dawn,' a vigorous climber introduced in 1930 (interestingly, it was the first plant ever to be patented). 'New Dawn' has fragrant, blush-pink double blossoms in spring, with sporadic rebloom in the fall. "We tend to select roses because we want them to bloom all summer," Jacobs says, "but in reality, there's a big flush in late May through mid-June and thereafter the blooms are sporadic....If you're lucky, you'll get a mild flush of bloom in October when the weather cools."
In addition to 'New Dawn,' Jacobs recommends 'The Fairy,' a compact shrub rose, covered in pink blossoms, that was introduced in 1932. More recently, in 1992, David Austin roses introduced 'Super Fairy,' which is a rambler (vigorous climber), so it can be used for training on pergolas, trellises, building faces, and the like. Jacobs says the David Austin line of roses, which are readily available in Hudson Valley garden centers, have proven nearly disease-free for him and are beautiful and fragrant. An Austin rose Jacobs treasures is 'Gertrude Jekyll,' which is a superfragrant, pale pink, fully double rose that is easy to grow.
Another one Jacobs recommends to newbies is 'Zephirine Douhin,' a fragrant, thornless, deep pink climbing rose. "It's in my top five," he says, and he has done a blog post about it specifically. It's readily available in the garden centers, but if you have any trouble finding it, take heart. Jacobs says, "When you research a rose that you feel confident about trying, ask your garden center to order it for you. They have access to so many more varieties than we do."