We make choices daily, and many of them need to be made on the spur of the moment. But when it comes to selecting the roses we grow in our gardens, our choices must be based on deliberate and thoughtful decisions. When you buy a rose on a whim, your selection rests on a wimpy gamble that the rose may turn out to be OK.
Roses are the “sparkle and shine” plants of the garden. But they aren’t just showy — they’re also the garden’s hardest-working plants. There is no other plant that flowers over such a long period, has such beautiful and varied blooms and features such a wonderfully rich assortment of fragrances.
We can achieve many landscape goals with roses, but we need to plan. When we buy without research of the variety and the role the plant will play in our garden, we risk disappointment. An excellent resource to consult is the American Rose Society’s Handbook for Selecting Roses. This annual publication (free for members and available for purchase at rose.org/shop) includes a garden rating for most roses. When you select a rose with a rating of 7.8 or higher, you are assured of buying an excellent rose.
Here is how to get started:
Pick the bloom that makes your heart sing. There are hundreds and hundreds of roses. How do you decide? Pick the bloom form that makes your heart sing. The number of petals on a bloom range from the five- to eight-petaled singles to heavily petaled full blooms. Some of us love the singles with their open display of brightly colored stamens (Lyda Rose, 9.0). Others love long-stemmed, high-centered hybrid teas (Gemini, 8.2, Touch of Class, 8.5), and many favor the romance of old garden roses and the David Austin roses with their full multi-petaled blooms. Some people want huge splashes of color that they can find in the multi-clustered blooms of polyantha, floribunda and shrub roses.
For some of us, a rose has no place in the garden unless its bloom is fragrant, and some of us are particular about the type of fragrance. Many of us want the quintessential old rose fragrance (Gertrude Jekyll, 7.9, Mr. Lincoln, 8.3); others prefer fruity scents (Secret, 8.0, Desdemona, 8.0) or the more unusual myrrh (Julia Child, 8.3) and musk fragrances (Francis E. Lester, 8.7).
Bloom color is really important. Maybe we have a particular color we love, or our landscape design dictates a color palette that is best. Roses come in every color except blue and black. There are even stripes and blends, and some roses have a lovely trait of displaying a mix of colors on a cluster of blooms as the rose ages (Life of the Party, Flutterbye, Bouquet Parfait).
Other important bloom considerations in selecting a rose:
- Many of the old garden roses bloom profusely — but only once a year (Mme. Hardy, 8.7).
- Modern roses bloom throughout the year, usually in six- to eight-week cycles. Much of the allure of singles and semi doubles is that they have a fast repeat cycle, so after you deadhead the spent blooms, the plant could be in bloom again in about 28 to 35 days. I have found that the hybrid tea Secret reblooms more frequently than any other rose in my garden, a definite plus!
- Some roses are stingy with blooms and others are really very generous. I’m guessing you want a rose that gives you a lot of blooms (Julia Child, Lady of Shallot, 7.9, Olivia Rose Austin, 8.5, Oh My! 7.8).
- Do the blooms last a long time? (Fame! 8.2, Sexy Rexy, 8.5, Joy, 8.0, Tournament of Roses, 8.2). Some roses are a one- or two-day wonder but are so pretty and fragrant that you do not mind (Rose de Rescht, 8.7).
- Does the bloom age gracefully? (Let Freedom Ring, 8.0, Marilyn Monroe, 8.0).
- Some roses have huge blooms (Princess Alexandra of Kent, 8.0, First Prize, 7.9, Just Joey, 8.0, Crescendo, 7.8), others have small, dainty blooms (Mlle. Cécile Brünner, 8.5) and there are many sizes in between.
Pick a rose for the landscape: Decide how you want to incorporate roses in your garden. Do you want a formal rose garden or an informal border where the roses are mixed up with other perennials? Do you want roses mainly for cutting?
Whatever garden purpose you have, there is a rose for that. Roses’ variability makes them amazingly versatile and provides an option for every need or situation in our gardens.
Make sure to place seating in your garden so you can sit and enjoy your roses, or plant your roses where you can see them from a window. Roses turn what could be a so-so spot in the garden into a show area. Use roses for their impact of color and pick a color palette that works well in your garden with your other perennials, and use annuals to complement and contrast.
Perhaps you have an area that requires a thornless rose? (Kew Gardens and Renae).
Classes of roses and size: Rose plants come in a huge spectrum of sizes, from tiny 18-inch miniatures to huge 30-foot ramblers. Climbing roses and ramblers bring height and add vertical color, interest and drama to the garden and are an excellent way to create a truly unique landscape. Climbing roses (Fourth of July, 8.2) and large shrub roses (Lyda Rose and Sally Holmes, 8.8) can be trained to gracefully drape an arch or a fence, and in an informal garden, ramblers (Rambling Rector) can be allowed free rein to just ramble and cascade out of trees.
Hybrid teas, floribundas and polyanthas generally range from 3 to 5 feet and can be planted together in a rose garden or integrated in the landscape with other plants.
Miniatures (Fairhope, 8.1) and mini-floras (Butter Cream, 8.0) are smaller versions of larger roses and resemble hybrid teas, floribundas or old garden roses in their bloom and growth habit.
David Austin roses and shrub roses have a wonderful landscape value and are generally very hardy and produce masses of blooms. There is a wide range of sizes with these roses, so you must determine their size at maturity to place them in your garden properly. Tall roses and those with an arching habit should be planted at the back of the border, not along the walkway.
Disease resistance: Not all roses are equal in disease resistance, and not all will do well in your location. This is where your research becomes essential. Visit the spectacular Balboa Park Rose Garden and explore your neighborhood.
Research the rose online, and if it is not described as disease-resistant, don’t buy it. American Garden Rose Selections and Texas A&M’s Earth-Kind Roses test roses, and their research helps us find trouble-free and healthy roses for our gardens. You can access their recommended roses at americangardenroseselections.com and aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkindroses.
Rita Perwich is a member of the San Diego Rose Society, a consulting rosarian and a master gardener with UC Cooperative Extension. ◆