A Rose Is Still a Rose

How not to be intimidated by your rose garden.

Rosa “Climbing Souvenir de la Malmaison”

Roses come laden with symbolism, dripping with history. They were the flower of Venus, goddess of love. In Christianity, the red rose stands for martyrdom, white for purity. Roses were believed to spring up on a battlefield on which heroes have fallen; thus they became a symbol of regeneration. The rose genealogy of damask and gallica and tea is a portentous saga, the details of which may never be pinned down, leading from the Wars of the Roses to a strong pink flower called Ronald Reagan.

Roses have been so highly engineered over the past century as to seem more disconnected from their wild relatives than any other flower. Evidence that things have gone too far: a rose called Stainless Steel. The whole package is intimidating. Much of the advice about growing roses makes the enterprise—with the spraying and the pruning to the outward-facing bud—look as burdensome, tedious, and heartbreaking as breeding racehorses or marrying into the British royal family.

I was trying to get over a feeling of unworthiness when a rose scholar directed me to a significant 19th-century tome, A Book About Roses, by one Samuel Reynolds Hole, a fox-hunting English clergyman. His first sentence: “He who would have beautiful Roses in his garden must have beautiful Roses in his heart.” Please, Rev. Sam, not another hurdle to get over.

It’s easy to forget that down deep, roses are simply prickly shrubs—brambles—cousins to the sprawling, ineradicable blackberry. A rose just wants to be a rose, and the plant’s needs are not all that complicated:

1. Lots of sun.
2. Soil that is not boggy and that gets a few inches of nourishing organic material on top every year.
3. An early morning soaking a couple of times a week through the growing season. (Roses need the most water when they’re coming into flowering.)
4. Protection from hot afternoon sun and forceful wind.

If you’d like to be ceremonious and take a little more trouble for your roses, in fall, you could prepare a place for a rose plant or two that you plan to buy in spring. Dig in well-rotted cow manure, bark chips, and leaf mold to mellow all winter.

With judicious selection—look for “disease-resistant”—you can skip the spraying and the advice on borers, spider mites, powdery mildew, black spot, and rose midges. Aphids, tiny sucking insects, can be blasted off with a hose. Aphids are bothersome in early spring as they feed on new growth, but they fade out when summer comes.

On a couple of days in midsummer you can indulge, if it’s necessary, in a nonchemical, fully organic slaughter of Japanese beetles, chewers of rose foliage. They’re easy to see and rather sluggish. Pop them into a can of soapy water. Finally, for disease control, clean up dead leaves around the bushes in fall.

There are hundreds and hundreds of Internet sites offering suggestions and heated opinions on the best roses. It depends on where you garden and what you like. Generally, however, the rosa rugosa hybrids and old garden roses like gallicas, damasks, and centifolias tend to be disease-resistant. In fact, the rugosa (whose name refers to its wrinkled leaves) can’t tolerate chemical sprays. (The rugosa roses, whose pink or white very fragrant blooms have come to be the characteristic scent and sight of East Coast beaches, actually come from China, Korea, and Japan.)

In my years working as a gardener in New York City parks, I planted some roses that survived pretty well, mostly in baking heat and substandard soil, with no extra water and no fertilizer. These were shrub roses—Carefree Delight, Carefree Wonder, Nearly Wild, and Betty Prior. The odd and sweet rosa mutabilis (a single-petaled flower that starts out pale apricot, turns to pink, and finishes red) also did well. Rosarians tell me that the pugnaciously named Knock Out roses are easy to grow. Now there’s Rosa Blushing Knock Out and Rainbow Knock Out, among others, as well as the original bluish-red.

The Rev. Hole, who was, by the way, the first president of Great Britain’s National Rose Society, said that if he could grow only one rose, it would be Gloire de Dijon, which boasts pale pink, intensely fragrant flowers.

Whatever rose you’ve chosen, it’s all right to lay off pruning entirely for the first couple of years. Then concentrate on cutting at the base any branches that are gray and lifeless.

It used to be that roses were segregated into beds that barely looked like part of the garden. See, for example, the 1939 edition of America’s Garden Book.

Partly because of the special esteem in which the rose is held, partly because the cultural requirements of the rose differ from those of other flowers, and partly because the rose lacks the fullness of growth of many cultivated plants and so needs special compositional arrangement, a separate garden for roses is the most satisfactory method of planting.

That must be one of the longest sentences ever to appear in a garden book. The advice is, fortunately, out of date. The segregated-roses look is reminiscent of a hospital ward for neurasthenic plants. Happily, rose-garden routine is no longer separate from the rest of gardening.

The shrub roses are good at mixing and, despite their often-grandiose names, give a cottage-y look. They go well with something that has a nonrose-shaped flower—something airy or spiky, like foxgloves, veronicas, tall campanulas, statice, or silvery artemisias.

Should you wish to enter the fraternity of rosarians, odds are that wherever you live, you can find a local rose society. The Dallas Area Historical Rose Society publishes a charming newsletter—”The Yellow Rose.” And most admirable, for sheer pluck, has to be the Alaska Rose Society.