For years, the idea of growing roses organically seemed like a fantasy. Many rose varieties bred in the last half of the 20th century didn’t perform well without chemical sprays, not to mention endless fussing and pampering.
Enter the Knock Out rose. Released in 2000, Knock Out quickly changed our perception of rose growing. Bred by Bill Radler, here was a rose that bloomed from spring through fall, thrived in widely varied climates, had many landscape uses, and needed no more care than other flowering shrubs. Knock Out combined the toughness and disease resistance of species roses with the repeat flowering of modern roses. Growing roses using sustainable methods suddenly went from fantasy to fact.
Radler followed his initial success with more shrub roses, including Sunny Knock Out and Pink Knock Out. As the Knock Out series revolutionized the way American gardeners think of roses, it spurred other rose hybridizers to undertake breeding programs patterned on Radler’s. The result is a new generation of undemanding, long-blooming roses. I call them simply “garden roses” because they are bred with garden performance in mind, as contrasted with the previous emphasis on perfect blooms for cutting or exhibition. Garden roses are useful in mass plantings, hedges, cottage gardens, and such.
The post–Knock Out generation allows gardeners to change the way we choose roses. We used to spend winter evenings browsing through catalogs filled with photos of beautiful flowers. These were hybrid tea varieties, for the most part, that bore glamorous flowers but displayed uniformly gangly growth habits; rose selection was based almost solely on the appearance of the flower. Today’s roses grow in many different shapes and sizes, ranging from groundcovers to shrubs of all sizes, climbers, and ramblers. It is important to first think about how and where the rose will be used in the garden before looking at the flower.
For example, if you need a mass planting that stays low, select from among the shorter groundcover roses. For a tall hedge, pick a variety with upright growth. Want to cover an arch over a garden gate? A well-mannered climber is the choice. When choosing among today’s easy-care roses, start by determining the rose’s purpose in the landscape.
To make the process easier, many roses today are sold in families or series made up of roses having similar characteristics. The following families of easy-care roses are widely available from garden centers and mail-order nurseries.
Photography by Patrick Montero
The Conard-Pyle Company, which also markets Knock Out, developed Drift roses by crossing groundcover and miniature roses. From the groundcover roses, they gain a spreading growth habit; from the miniatures, nonstop flowering. They are well suited to tumbling over walls, massing in landscape beds, edging the front of a flower border, and growing in large pots on a deck. Their versatility makes them a valuable addition to gardens.
Drift roses are available in seven colors, including Coral Drift, Red Drift, and the newest introduction, ivory-and-yellow Popcorn Drift. They take well to being shaped and groomed throughout the season. A simple clip with a pair of hedge shears will keep them compact and tidy. They produce sprays of small blossoms (multiple flowers per stem) and are hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 4.
Biltmore Garden Rose Collection
As the creator of Biltmore, a Gilded Age estate in Asheville, North Carolina, George Vanderbilt gathered treasures from around the world. Continuing in Vanderbilt’s vein, the estate, now open to the public, has assembled a group of great garden roses from the world over and previously not available in North America. The growth habits of roses in this collection vary from shrubs to climbers, making them useful for containers, mass planting, flower borders, and training on arbors and pillars. Diversity is intentional in this group, but two common characteristics are inherent: disease resistance and fragrance.
The collection includes Flamenco Rosita, a large shrub with cherry-red blooms; salmon-colored Lady Ashe, a climber; and Loretta Lynn Van Lear, which bears ruffled peach blooms on a compact plant. Use a light hand to trim and shape the roses during the growing season. While the collection is comprised of roses from different breeders, all are hardy to Zone 5. Their flowering habits include some borne one to a stem and others that flower in clusters.
Oso Easy Series
Part of the Proven Winners brand, these roses have been bred for compact growth. They thrive in containers, where they can be underplanted with tumbling herbs. Try them as a low hedge lining a walkway, massed in a single bed in the lawn, or mingling with annuals and perennials in a traditional English cottage-style garden.
Mango Salsa, with nearly nonstop blooms in a bright coral-red color, is an outstanding variety in this series. Oso Easy roses bloom mostly in sprays. All are hardy to Zone 4 and some even to Zone 3.
Easy Elegance Collection
From Bailey Nurseries, shrub roses in this series range in size from 2 to 4 feet. Their compact nature makes them a good choice for pots, front-of-the-border placement, or mass planting. They have a broad range of colors and bloom shapes, including pastel pink-and-yellow Music Box, a new release. The flowers appear mostly in sprays, but some of the larger blooms are one or two to a stem.
Care is typical for garden roses. Use a light hand in trimming during the season; cut them back hard occasionally to bring forth new wood. All are hardy to Zone 4.
David Austin Roses
English rose breeder David Austin deserves credit for reviving the idea of roses as garden plants in the United States. His roses combine old-fashioned flowers and form with today’s characteristics of repeat blooming and disease resistance. More-recent releases such as Munstead Wood (velvety crimson), Molineux (bright gold, shown here), and Carding Mill (apricot pink) particularly make outstanding garden roses. Austin roses come in all shapes and sizes, so evaluate each variety individually for its garden use.
In general, Austin roses respond well to the heavier pruning tactics traditionally utilized for hybrid teas. They can be cut back hard in late winter; in fact, some varieties rebloom best if you prune them hard after each bloom flush. The taller ones are good for training on a pillar. All David Austin roses are fragrant and hardy to Zone 5, with some being hardy to Zone 4.
Keep Reading: Garden Rose Care