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What Is A Garden Rose? | Paul Zimmerman Roses Consulting & Design
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What Is A Garden Rose?

Paul F. Zimmerman – A two part series published in “The Rose”.  Official publication of The American Rose Society 2008

Part 1. Garden Roses.

The Rose is one of the most diverse plants gardeners have. There are Cut Flower Roses producing beautiful long stem blooms for the florist industry, Exhibition Roses winning awards at shows and Garden Roses incredibly easy to grow in the garden. Yet, they tend to be all lumped together and, particularly in this country, sadly have collectively gotten a reputation for being fussy, difficult and chemically dependent. So before we begin discussing designing, inter-planting and care of a garden grown around roses, I’d like to spend this first article talking about which roses are best to use in a general landscape setting. In short, what is a “Garden Rose”?

First a garden rose must be easy to care for. This doesn’t mean it thrives on neglect. Instead it must make an attractive shrub, keep its foliage and bloom with no more attention than what is given to other shrubs in the garden. Essentially it should be nothing more than another flowering shrub and be treated as such. What they can’t be are “sticks with flowers on top”. That is an unattractive plant, adding nothing to the aesthetic of the garden. In part four we will talk in greater detail about a simple care program; but any rose that needs constant chemical spraying, feeding and fussing over is to me not a garden rose.

Before I go on and get into hot water here, let me say this article is not about passing judgment on what kind of rose or rose growing is better. Exhibition and Cut Flower varieties of roses are beautiful and there are many dedicated and hard-working gardeners who have raised particularly the former to an art form all its own. Nor is this meant to be a natural vs. chemical discussion. There is enough divisiveness in the rose world as it is and I have no desire to be part of that debate. This series of articles is simply about a style of roses and how to grow them – nothing more. Statements I make like a rose needing constant coddling not being a Garden Rose is not meant to imply it is not a great rose. It’s just not a great Garden Rose.

The second criteria is does the rose have an attractive overall shape? This refers to the entire plant, not just the flower at this or that stage. I get asked all the time how I choose roses to offer at our nursery. That is always followed by me saying that it starts with the overall structure of the plant, works through health and the bloom is last. What do I look

Complicata (left) and Mme Plantier illustrate what shrub roses should look like.

for? Simple. Does the bush build itself into a pleasing shape be it rounded, tall or gracefully arching? Or does it grow all which way, throwing out the occasional cane resembling the Loch Ness Monster poking its head out of the water in a grainy photograph. While the latter is certainly an interesting architectural statement or a place to hang your secaturs, it is less desirable than the former.

Third is foliage. Does it have any? Don’t laugh! One of the comments we get at the nursery is people are tired of rose bushes that lose all their leaves. Assuming it does have leaves, is the plant well foliated from the ground to the top. Any shrub with bare legs is not very useful in the garden. Imagine the guards outside Buckingham palace with their elegant tall black hats, beautiful braided coats but without any trousers. While fun for some, it would look out of place and would greatly reduce the number of people posing for photos next to them – at least photos they could show at their next party. Lastly are the leaves healthy, having a nice color of green, be it light or dark.

Finally come the blooms themselves and this for me is a totally individual choice. I love single roses like Mrs. Oakley Fisher, Olivier Roellinger™ and R. virginiana, yet many people don’t. Others love a high pointed center, I’m ambivalent. Some like cupped blooms, some like reflexed and some like quartered. With roses we are blessed with so many

Olivier Roellinger. Single petaled rose from Delbard

choices in bloom shape that there is the perfect choice for everyone and everyone’s choice should be appreciated. So if the plant meets the first three criteria and you like the blooms, than for you it is a good Garden Rose. I once read a book on wine by Matt Kramer and he noted the question he always gets is, “what is a good wine”. He responds by asking, “What was the most recent wine you had and did you like it?” If they respond affirmatively then he simply says, “Then for you that was a good wine”. That is the way I feel about rose flowers.

Many rose breeding programs actually draw a very distinct line between their Garden Roses and their Cut Flower or Exhibition Varieties. Kordes, Tantau, Meilland to name a few. The one I am familiar with is The Pépinières G DELBARD Nursery of France and they are quite strict about not combining the two. While all nurseries have their own technique for evaluation, I find the one at the Delbard nursery to be very insightful and go when I can. Okay, that’s the excuse I use because it also gives me a reason to visit central France on a regular basis, have lovely wine and terrific cheeses. With Arnaud Delbard’s assistance I’d like to walk you through their trialing program. It gives additional insight into what a garden rose is.

All the crosses are made in one greenhouse but with the different intentions in mind; Garden Roses or Cut Flower Rose. During this first stage they are raised in the same bed and the first selection is made. The evaluation at this stage is almost exclusively for bloom as they are too small to evaluate for anything else. From the time the seedlings are planted to the first bloom is as short as a matter of weeks. Arnaud points out, “While it might seem difficult to choose among thousands or even hundreds of thousands of seedlings, the good ones make themselves known very quickly. As you walk among them their beauty catches your eye.”

Seedlings deemed worthy are carefully transplanted into pots. Those not passing the test are simply discarded. This may seem cruel but it must be done and quite frankly what is left isn’t worth bothering about. The freshly potted up seedlings are placed in a greenhouse or poly tunnel so their evaluation process can continue.

During this next stage foliage begins to come into play. Many rose breeders now no longer spray their seedlings with chemicals in order to quickly wean out the disease prone ones. They are simply given good soil, perhaps some organic fertilizer and of course water.

Several people evaluate the roses. Each is given a different colored bamboo stake. As they go through the seedlings they place their stake by any rose they like. Arnaud explained to me this is done over time because it is difficult to judge a rose based on only one or two viewings. “It must be observed over a long time and all the seasons before the true character of the rose makes itself known” After a many passes a consensus emerges and the roses having multiple stakes are the ones that move on to the next testing phase. In addition, they evaluate for different characteristics at different times. In the spring they evaluate the bloom. Color, shape, fragrance, do the petals fall on their own once the bloom is done; all of these are taken into account. Later in the season they go through the roses again but this time the flower is completely ignored. They focus only on the plant itself. Health, abundance of foliage, does the plant push up new canes, initial impression of growth habit; are looked for.

“Looking at the bloom and plant at separate times allows us to evaluate both parts independently of each other,” adds Arnaud. “This has great advantages in that you are not so willing to put a stake next to a mediocre plant just because the bloom is beautiful. However, if a rose does have one outstanding characteristic like great foliage it might be separated and used as future breeding stock but not released to commerce.”

During this initial phase of testing the potted seedlings begin to be separated into two distinct groups. For the Garden Roses both bloom and plant must pass the tests based on criteria discussed earlier. Cut Flower/Exhibition Roses have a set of benchmarks all their own. Does the bloom sit well on the stem? Does the plant recycle the blooms quickly, meaning does it rebloom often? The florist industry needs roses with little “down time” because they make their money from selling the flowers. The plant also needs to rebloom predictably in terms of a schedule. If you are a greenhouse needing to provide ten million long stemmed roses for Valentines Day, it is very important to know exactly how many days it takes to get the perfect bloom to form. The most important test is vase life. If the cut flower does not last long in a vase then it cannot be a Cut Flower/Exhibition variety. Essentially these varieties must be predictable and consistent in all aspects of its growth habit. Understand that there is nothing wrong with that, because that is what it they are bred for and where there beauty lies

Another thing to understand concerning roses bred for the cut flower industry is they are rarely grown outdoors. Instead, they are grown in huge greenhouses, often covering hundreds of acres and never exposed to the elements.

They are kept protected from the elements, sprayed and fertilized regularly. After a few years hard work they are worn out and thus discarded. The point being there is never any real demand for the plant to be disease resistant and able to handle the outside elements like rain, fog, heat etc. Plus they are not expected to live very long. They are raised for their ability to produce long stemmed cut flowers in a very controlled environment. Hardly a Garden Rose.

The Garden Roses that pass the second test while in the pot are budded onto three to four different kinds of understock in the Delbard fields. Why different understock can be answered by a brief explanation of what is understock.

Roses are produced for the marketplace in two ways. The vast majority are budded onto an understock that is known for being vigorous and therefore has the ability to push the rose along. An alternative method gaining great popularity in the United States is to propagate the roses through cuttings in greenhouses. These are known as own-root-roses. Everyone has their preference but for Garden Roses my personal choice, if they are suitable for where you garden, are own-root roses. The answer why is found in the definition of a Garden Rose.

Recall how we discussed that a garden rose should first and foremost be an attractive shrub, well foliated and full. In my experience you get a fuller rounder plant with an own-root rose because the base can develop many more canes. Instead of 5-7 canes you usually end up with 15-20 – a much more attractive plant. Other pluses are if an own-root rose is damaged during a severe freeze it is more likely to come back “true”, meaning the rose you paid for will grow back.

I’d like to bust one myth about own-root roses. The perception they are slower to establish. Nothing is farther from the truth. The difference lies in how old the plants are at the time they are sold. Budded roses are usually 2-3 years old if you include the time the understock was in the ground before budding. Most own-root plants as currently sold are no more than one year old and some less than that. Plus most are sold in pots, an environment that grows a much different root structure than a ground grown rose. A “pot” root structure does take more time to get established in the ground. However, as more own-root roses are grown in the ground for the same length of time as budded roses, I think this perception will cease. Having grown a few crops of own-root roses in the ground myself I am quite comfortable in saying that an own-root rose, the same age as a budded rose, raised under the same conditions will easily establish itself as quickly. The difference is not own-root or budded, but in the length of time a rose is grown at the nursery before it arrives in your garden – how old it is when you get it. However, I cannot disagree that as they are sold at the moment, which are as younger plants, own-root-roses take a bit more patience.

Where might own-root-roses not be the best choice you ask? Since at the moment they are generally sold as younger plants, in cold climates is the first answer that springs to mind. During your shorter growing season it is imperative young plants become well established in order to survive that first winter. An older budded plant is an answer to that. If you cannot find a more established own-root-rose a two to three year old budded rose could be better than a young own-root-rose. Upon planting however, bury the bud union because over the time the rose will become an own-root rose, giving you the desirable qualities I mentioned earlier

Delbard tests Garden Roses on different understocks to be sure the rose will do well under as many varied conditions as they can create at their nursery. They are also beginning to test them on their own roots, as are many other breeders. Some breeders like Brad Jalbert in Canada initially test their Garden Roses only on their own roots, bypassing the budding process all together. I like this because as I mentioned earlier the very definition of an own-root rose is one vigorous enough to survive without the assistance of an artificial understock. To me a rose than cannot survive in a Garden without artificial understock should never be released as a garden rose in the first place. That you choose to bud it later for reasons already discussed is one thing. But that it is budded because it cannot survive on its own-roots is simply ridiculous. The method of testing Garden Roses only on their own-roots to me is just another way of thinning the herd.

The roses are now tested in the fields for several years. The same process of bamboo stakes is used, as is the separation of evaluating for bloom at one point and foliage/plant at another. The superior varieties slowly make themselves known and they may be sent to other locations around the world for further evaluation under different testing conditions.

Arnaud feels strongly testing around the world is a key part of determining a good Garden Rose. “That is one reason we enter our roses in many International Trials. These trials judge and score the entire plant over two growing seasons and gives us good information into a rose’s performance under different conditions.” Note that Arnaud mentions the entire plant. I’ve judged many a rose trial and the plant that won may not have had the quintessential high pointed center bud and flower, but it certainly was hands down the best Garden Rose.

The time it takes to breed a rose, evaluate it and ultimately bring it to market takes around 10 years. From hundreds of thousands of seedlings some 10 years later emerge perhaps 3-5 roses worthy of being released to the public, which in my mind make any rose breeder a hero of the garden world. Along the way the roses have hopefully been tested, stressed and observed under all kinds of natural outdoor conditions. And that is what makes a great Garden Rose.

Next issue – Selecting Garden Roses and Laying out a Rose Garden

Can a Hybrid Tea be a Garden Rose?

I am asked this question a lot and in short the answer is, of course. Many Hybrid Teas are easy to care for and make attractive plants in the garden without a lot of care. W. Kordes & Sohne Nursery from Germany has recently released a “Freelander” series of outdoor cut-roses that possess all the qualities of their Garden Roses roses combined with stems and blooms suitable for cutting. Breeders such as Tom Carruth of Weeks Roses, Keith Zary of Jackson & Perkins and Brad Jalbert of Select Roses have some wonderful new Hybrid Teas that fall into this category. While I lived in Los Angeles I grew Sam McGredy’s Hybrid Tea “New Zealand” which is a world class rose by any standard.

Part 2:  Selecting Roses and Laying Out The Garden

So how do you the home rose gardener go about deciding which roses are Garden Roses? First and foremost ask other rose growers in your area either through local rose society meetings or via the many rose forums on the internet. No rose does well in all parts of the country, so local information from rose growers who grow Garden Roses in your area is important.

You can begin by using the rose classes as a guide. As with most things it’s not perfect but a good place to start. Keeping in mind the point I made in the previous paragraph about not all roses doing well everywhere, I asked Richard Beales of Peter Beales Roses U.K. to help me with this. Richard and I put our thoughts together and we feel these classes make good Garden Roses both here and in the U.K. I feel that should cover a good part of the U.S.

The Chinas – This group of roses are invaluable in that they stay on the short side – something important in today’s smaller gardens. In addition they are usually healthy, continuous flowering through the summer and have an important genealogy as ancestors to modern roses. Many do well in pots and they excel in mass plantings. In the U.S. they are hardy to zone seven and maybe a few in zone six with shelter from the wind. One exception (isn’t there always one) is Mutabilis which I’ve been told is hardy to zone five.

The Albas – A very healthy group of roses and can be used as climbers or shrubs. All are fragrant and, although spring flowering only, are very charismatic in that their grey-green foliage make perfect backdrops for summer and fall flowering perennials and roses. In terms of size they can get tall – up to six feet. They are very hardy with some withstanding zone 4.

The Portlands – Our northern gardening friends rightly lament that it is difficult to find hardy, repeat flowering shrubs. Look no further because all Portlands flower continuously through the summer and most have a built in resistance to diseases. They are, without exception, fragrant and easy to grow especially in group planting or bedding. Easily hardy to zone five and some to zone four. Average height is three to five feet – ideal for any garden.

The Gallicas – Also spring flowering but make up for this by having some of the most beautiful and fragrant flowers of the old garden roses. Grown as shrubs, they are usually easy to accommodate in any situation. Fans of “purple” colors will love the gallicas as that shade runs rampant through the class. Hardy to zone 4 and some even beyond they need a winter chill to bloom well so I would advise against growing them above a zone seven and even that might be pushing it.

The Hybrid Musks – A class created by the Rev. Joseph Pemberton in England this is a superb group of remontant shrub roses, almost all developed between the two World Wars. They are easy to maintain and healthy. Some are quite capable of making small, continuous flowering climbers if grown on walls or given support. They can handle to zone five and also seem to thrive in heat.

The Rugosas – The roses that grow wild on the beaches of Maine in sandy soil. These must be classified as the healthiest of all roses. Almost all are fragrant and repeat their flowers in succession throughout the summer. They have durable dark green foliage and most of the single flowered varieties produce an excellent crop of bright red hips every autumn. All make superb hedging plants. Easily hardy to zone four and three one thing to keep in mind is they hate spraying of any kind on their leaves. I have also found in hotter climates it is best to plant them in a location so that by mid-day they are out of the scorching sun as it will burn their leaves.

The Noisettes – Created in Charleston, South Carolina by a rice planter named John Champney, these are a class of mostly repeat blooming climbers with colours ranging from white through the yellows and reds. Almost without exception they are fragrant with good healthy foliage. Some of the earlier Noisettes like Mary Washington are shrubs so do some homework. It was when they became crossed with Teas that they almost all became climbers. They are hardy to zone six and some are grown in zone five in sheltered spots or with winter protection.

Ramblers of both Wichurana and Multiflora origin – Almost all have the `wow’ factor when in full bloom. Within their ranks is a complete spectrum of colour. They are healthy and, if necessary, will tolerate impoverished soil and harsher weather conditions. An excellent use of these ramblers is as backdrop to repeat flowering climbers. In spring all the roses are in bloom and for the rest of the season the healthy and abundant foliage of the ramblers set off the repeat flowering roses. Easily hardy to cold climates of zone four and even lower.

Modern Shrubs – These are a group of roses that have been developed since the end of World War 11. They are of mixed progeny, almost all continuous flowering and are good where space permits them to develop their own personality. Many can be grown as small climbers if placed against some form of support. With this group it is especially important to judge each variety individually and speak with other rose growers in your area about the ones you are thinking about trying. Almost all will be hardy to zone six with many to zone five and some to even four or lower. Size can vary from three feet to eight feet or more.

Floribunda Roses (Cluster Flowered) These have been developed over the last 100 years or so and some of them make superb garden plants especially if grown in groups. Usually more healthy than Hybrid Teas, a few of the older varieties of quieter colours fit comfortably amongst the older roses of all types. Their smaller size of on average three to five feet, make them welcome additions to the garden. Many are hardy to zone five.

The Species Roses – Amongst the Species are many that make superb garden plants. Although few are remontant, they are invariably healthy and most produce a superb crop of brightly coloured hips. Hardiness will vary so again, check with rose growers in your area or on the internet forums. Sizes vary widely so do a little homework because when they get big, they get very big.

Tea roses – Superb Garden Roses that continually bear their blooms all season long and come in most every color found in the rose world – including bicolour. Their open growth habit and rounded shape are very pleasing in any garden setting. In warm climates some can grow to seven feet or more but generally they stay in the five foot range. They also don’t mind being regularly trimmed. They are hardy to zone seven and can handle zone six if sheltered from freezing winds.

The Polyanthas – A very under used and under appreciated group of first-class Garden Roses. The smaller blooms appear in clusters all season on shrubs packed with proportionately sized foliage. Most stay under three feet and will spread as wide or more. Very healthy and easily hardy to zone five.

Now that you have chosen your roses keeping in mind size, color and growth habit just as you would for any garden design, it’s time to think about doing an initial layout on paper. Doing so gives you a moment to think about your garden before you start the actual planting. This is important because you want to make sure colors aren’t clashing or a taller variety is screening out a smaller one. It’s also time to think about how much area do you want each variety to cover and how many bushes of that variety you will need to make that happen. That’s right, how many. We are too often tempted to plant one of each variety, and while okay for a collector’s garden, for a rose garden (with or without other planting) multiples of one variety really give the garden that punch. And that brings me to spacing of the actual plants.

It was during my first visit to Mottisfont Abbey in the UK when I first began to expand my ideas on how to use roses in the garden, and spacing was something I rethought during that visit. Conventional wisdom at the time was spacing should be at great distances so the roses don’t touch each other and something called “maximum air circulation” can be realized. At Mottisfont in many cases three to five of the same rose are planted in close groups so the roses can intermingle and make it appear as if one solid bush is covering a large area.

It is important at this point to pause for a moment and understand why the conventional wisdom of spacing existed. That can be found in the supposed need for air circulation. It was believed air circulation was needed to help keep the roses disease free. Well if you are growing disease prone roses this is true. Garden Roses are by their very nature disease resistant so the need for air circulation isn’t a factor.

The concept of spacing has been taken to its logical next step by Michael Marriott of David Austin Roses in the UK. We were fortunate enough to bring Michael to Ashdown for a workshop in the fall of 2007. I had asked Michael to simply do a day on his philosophy on roses, in his own words and boy did he deliver. The day was wonderful but there was one part that really rocked people’s rose world. And that was his section on spacing of the plants in a rose garden. Michael has been kind enough to allow me to pass it on to you in this article. I covered it in our E-Gazette after his visit and here is that section.

One of the many subjects Michael Marriott covered during his recent all-day workshop here at Ashdown was the way he plants his roses in groups to get a stunning mass effect. Unlike most of us who plant one bush of each variety several feet apart, Michael tightly plants several bushes of the same variety.

In England Michael plants them anywhere from eighteen to thirty inches apart depending on how large the variety will ultimately grow. For warmer climates he recommends starting at twenty-four inches and working your way up from there. But the idea is to plant them close enough so they intermingle and you cannot tell where one bush starts and another ends. He uses anywhere from three to six to twelve or more bushes of one variety depending on how much space he wants to cover in the flower border. He does not worry about planting in odd numbers.

In between the mass plantings of a particular variety he leaves enough room before the start of the next variety for maintenance and to define where one variety begins and another ends. For example if he is planting plants of particular varieties eighteen inches apart the first bush of the next variety will begin thirty-six inches away and then its plants would be spaced eighteen inches apart and so on.

Lastly one of the most important points he made concerns pruning and shaping the bushes in this type of garden. He does not prune each bush of a variety’s mass planting individually. Rather he treats the mass as one plant and shapes the whole.

Don’t be afraid to try this method. Michael has used it successfully in gardens all over the world and we certainly can’t argue with the results!

The simplest way to layout your garden is on graph paper. The first step is to decide what “scale” are you going to use – scale being the distance each square covers. Michael had another great tip for this as well. Set your scale at one square equals twelve inches. That way as you draw the area each variety will cover you can simply count the squares to help you determine out how many plants of each variety you will need.

As an example. You decide a short variety is going to cover an area three feet by four feet. As you lay it out you find it covers a total of twelve squares. Planting the bushes eighteen inches apart means each one will take up 1.5 squares. Simply divide twelve by 1.5 and you arrive at eight plants. A variety spaced twenty-four inches apart will take up two squares each. So divide twelve squares by two and you need six plants. A variety spaced thirty inches apart will take up 2.5 squares each so divide twelve squares by 2.5 and you conclude you will need five plants or you can use four and spread them out a little more.

The same method works for figuring out how many of a perennial, annual or other shrub you will need. As you continue to layout your garden on paper consult the spacing recommendation for the other plants you are using. Count the number of squares, do a little simple math and you will quickly know! I’ve used this since Michael’s workshop and find it a real simple and quick way to lay out the garden.

As you lay out your rose garden keep in mind color and height of the plants you are choosing – be they roses, perennials, annuals, shrubs or other. It’s best to make sure colors blend smoothly from one group of plants to the other. If you have an awkward transition plants with white blooms always make a good color to put in between. But in the end your personal choices is your guide. Some people like soft pastels and some like hot colors that clash – it’s your choice in the end.

As you lay out your garden try to get out of the habit of using only one plant of each variety. Think drifts of plants and color planted in tight groups. In the end it is a more pleasing effect that polka dots of one plant here and one there. After all as Graham Stuart Thomas so aptly titled his book it is “The Art of Gardening With Roses”.