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Senior Correspondent

Finding the Right Sustainable Rose

Finding the Right Sustainable Rose

Star of the Republic is one of the writer’s sustainable roses. (Photo by Kit Flynn)

Once I made the decision to rid my garden of hybrid teas and to plant sustainable roses in their place, I realized I had no idea what to do next. Choose a suitable rose, you say? 

Do you realize how many rose varieties are out there, waiting to trip you up on your mission to find those that will survive in your garden? I made endless lists and then threw my hands up in bewilderment. Hopefully, I can save you some of the agony.

First, you must know your garden zone. Many roses cannot sustain life in the colder parts of the country, so it is essential to plant a rose that can survive your winters — and this requires knowing your correct gardening zone. The best place to find this information is at http://www.garden.org/zipzone/, where you highlight your state. Most mail-order growers will ask you what gardening zone you garden in, so this is pertinent information.

Second, you need to choose your color or colors. The majority of old garden roses, including the Chinas and the teas (not to be confused with hybrid teas), come in an assortment of pinks, which is great if pink grabs you. Modern roses come in a myriad of colors, except for that elusive blue, so you may benefit by investigating modern roses instead. Remember: Many modern roses are not hybrid teas.

I started out by planting earth-kind roses, which proved to be the right choice. In 2000 Texas A&M started the first earth-kind trials. Texas A&M horticulturalists planted a variety of roses, including hybrid teas, in trial beds. For the first year they watered the roses, and then they gave them nothing — no fungicides, fertilizer or water — for the next seven years. Those roses that survived won the designation of “earth-kind.” No hybrid teas survived these trials. 

Today, earth-kind trials are occurring in 25 states, Bermuda, Canada, India and New Zealand in an effort to find good, reliable sustainable roses for specific areas. (For a map go to http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkindroses/field-trials/trial-gardens.) The Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at The New York Botanical Garden also has a list of all the roses they are testing at http://www.nybg.org/gardens/rose-garden/earthkind.php

My advice is to select roses from the earth-kind trials closest to you. So far, Texas A&M and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are the only ones who have published the names of their roses earning the earth-kind designation — and the two lists are quite different. Not only are winters more severe in Nebraska than in Texas, but black spot, the fungal disease that destroys hybrid teas, has eight races (strains) so that a rose that survived the Texas trials might not be able to tolerate the Nebraskan black spot race. The trials are ongoing with new varieties being added: M. Tillier was recently included in the updated Texas A&M list.

There are other resources available. While Heirloom Roses (http://www.heirloomroses.com) and The Antique Rose Emporium (http://www.antiqueroseemporium.com) carry earth-kind roses, both of these growers have developed their own line of roses that show great disease resistance. Look for the pioneer roses on the ARE website and Heirloom Roses on the Heirloom Roses website; be sure to look for the “disease resistant” description. Chamblee’s Roses (http://www.chambleeroses.com/index.php) not only carries many disease-resistant roses, but the information found under each listed variety is excellent.

These are the mail-order growers I use the most, but there are others to investigate: Rogue Valley Roses and Roses Unlimited. Some of these growers offer roses in one-gallon sizes, whereas The Antique Rose Emporium sells its roses in the two-gallon size, a size that performs well for me when I’m planting roses in the early fall. I find that the larger two-gallon size gives the roses a better head start for fall planting.

Why do I use mail-order sources? Sustainable roses perform best if grown on their own roots — and almost all roses, with the exception of species roses, sold in my area are on grafted rootstock. Remember that evil species rose R. multiflora? The one that’s on the invasive species list? This rose has an incredibly vigorous root system. Many weak roses have to be grafted on vigorous rootstock, such as R. multiflora or Dr. Huey, if they are to have any chance of survival. Strong roses growing on their own roots take a longer time to catch up — but catch up they will. None of the roses in the earth-kind trials were grafted.

Another problem with using grafted roses is that all the usable canes must come from above the grafted area, as those suckers sprouting from the roots will be of a different rose. In other words, the roots will produce R. multiflora or Dr. Huey, whereas the canes above the grafted area will turn out blooms of the grafted rose. In some cases, the root canes will overtake the grafted canes, leaving you with an undesirable rose. Infected rootstock is responsible for spreading rose mosaic disease, a virus you do not want — another good reason to avoid grafted roses. All roses sold on their own roots are advertised as “own-root” roses.

Why is rose grafting so prevalent in the industry? Many roses, such as the hybrid teas, have been so over-hybridized that they simply cannot exist without the help of vigorous rootstock. Growers need to push out their roses as quickly as possible if they are to make money, especially those growers for the big box stores. The planting season is short, and many growers are only paid for those specimens that sell. Hence, many Knockout and earth-kind roses are grafted to get that initial head start. This benefits the grower but not the consumer.

It is because I wish to grow only own-root roses that I consistently use mail-order growers. An added reason is that the selection of sustainable roses is much greater than what I can find at local sources.

Another good resource for discovering good, sustainable roses is to ask your gardening friends. Through friends I discovered Morning Has Broken, a lovely Heirloom Rose, and Blossomtime, a beautiful climbing rose. Both roses have delighted me and both have very clean (i.e., no black spot) foliage. Neither variety would I have found on my own.

The last group of roses I recommend are the Buck roses. A horticulturalist at Iowa State University, Dr. Griffith Buck had a passion for roses, but the university gave him few resources. Consequently he experimented, hybridizing many varieties, which grew on their own roots with no fertilizer or chemical treatments. A generous man, he gave his roses to friends and family. Upon his retirement, the university dug up his field trial beds, thereby horrifying his friends and family who pooled their roses in an effort to ensure their survival. Today, the University of Minnesota holds the inventory for the Buck roses. Coming in a huge variety of colors, almost all of the Buck roses are shrub roses. Many of them are available at the aforementioned mail-order resources. These roses are, in two words, charming and resilient.

The last knowledgeable resource you should look at is the American Rose Society (http://www.ars.org), which — not unsurprisingly — has an amazing amount of information about roses. To its members ($40 annual dues), the Society sends out its booklet “Selecting Roses” on a yearly basis. The roses listed in it have a score from 1-10, a score that several mail-order sources cite in their variety descriptions. As a rule, I never order roses with a rating under 7.6, unless a neighbor has had luck with that particular variety. The rating system is a great help in selecting appropriate roses.

One word of caution: Roses are very addictive. You might find yourself wanting to move so you will have more room for growing roses. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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