'Gertrude Jekyll' is one of the first roses to start flowering in late spring. Glowing pink blooms are strongly scented, with the quintessential English rose fragrance. It grows to 5 feet tall by 3 1/2 feet wide, or 8-10 feet as a climber. It is hardy in USDA Zone 4.
Plant roses earlier this spring – plus, bring back the historic fragrance and romance of the old roses. Try mail-order bare-root English roses this season.
If you have had your fill of reliable, plain Jane, but popular shrub roses, allow me to introduce you to the English garden rose (Rosa hybrids). Once you’ve seen an English rose, you will easily recognize it.
Can you say exquisitely frilly? Can you say divinely fragrant? Can you say disease resistant? Can you say beautiful for fresh-flower arrangements? How about romantic roses with lots and lots of petals? Yes, those attributes all describe the English garden rose.
English roses can be grown as a standard or a tree form. ‘Winchester Cathedral’, an old rose heirloom, develops a buff center and has an almond and honey scent.
Personally, I’m really not a rose person. In fact, I generally shun thorny plants altogether. But, I do have a little, coral pink shrub rose called Lady Elsie Mae (Rosa ‘ANGelsie’) and a couple of Amber Flower Carpet roses. I had a red Knock Out (R. ‘Radrazz’), but I tore it out last year, mainly because I was tired of it.
Despite not being a rose person, I totally get why they are so popular, and I appreciate them, especially the reblooming shrub roses — they are low maintenance and somewhat disease resistant.
Last spring, I was sent a boxful of bare-root David Austin roses (davidaustinroses.com) to trial. There were more roses than I could plant in my small, mostly shady landscape, so I kept a few and donated others to Master Gardeners in the Midwest to try.
Why buy bare-root roses? Usually the selection is much greater. Most are purchased through online retailers, and are shipped at just the right time for planting. Bare-root roses (as well as other types) are grown on their own rootstock, or they are grafted onto a stronger rootstock. A rose with a bulge or joint atop the root stock is grafted. A rose growing on its own stock does not have the bulge.
“When planting, the fat joint where the stem meets the roots should be positioned at soil surface in warmer areas, or 2-3 inches below surface in Zones colder than USDA Zone 6,” said Michael Marriott, technical manager rosarian for David Austin Roses. For those who choose roses labeled “own root,” which are recommended for colder climates, position the juncture of the main stem and roots at ground level.
English rose 'Darcey Bussell' boasts fully double, deep crimson flowers with a fruity fragrance. A strong, reliable performer, it averages 3-4 feet tall and wide, making it a good candidate for growing in a summer container.
“I was reminded of too much spacing yesterday on the BBC’s ‘Gardeners’ World’ program, when somebody was showing off their roses and they were all planted much too far apart,” Marriott said. “How can people think that acres of bare soil are attractive? Especially, when it can so easily be filled with beautiful roses. And, of course, exposing the soil is the worst thing you can do to the health of the soil and so health of the roses. The most important (things) are careful selection of varieties and good soil preparation.”
‘Golden Celebration’ is a fragrant rose that gets about 4½ feet tall and wide. Hardy in USDA Zone 5.
When it comes to pruning, Marriott said we need not be too concerned about whether we cut at three leaflets or five leaflets. Just cut it back in spring, just as new growth begins, he said.
While American roses are bred for their low maintenance and reliability, English roses are bred for their beauty. Roses with 40 or more petals are classified as “very full” by the American Rose Society (rose.org), and nearly all English roses seem to have at least that many, but usually in the 60 to 100 petal range. The petal count is what gives the English roses that extra frilly look.
It helps to have a degree in English lit or history to know who the roses are named after. There’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, ‘Jude the Obscure’, ‘A Shropshire Lad’, ‘Charles Darwin’, ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’, ‘Thomas a’ Becket’ and ‘Princess Anne’ to name a few. ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ is named for the famous garden designer and ‘Munstead Wood’ is named for her garden in Surry.
Will bare-root roses work for you? You won’t know until you try. Like a lot of woody plants, it may take a couple of years for the roses to become established and provide the flower power you want, said Linda Kimmel, district director of the Illinois-Indiana Rose Society. “The newer ones are more disease resistant. I think they follow the rule of ‘first year sleeper, second year creeper, third year leaper.’”
At 4 feet tall and wide, the fragrant, repeat-blooming ‘Grace’ rose works well in a large container. Hardy in USDA Zone 5.
How to Use Roses in the Landscape
• As a hedge or to line a path. Be sure to leave plenty of room between pathways and passersby. Think of the heavenly fragrance of a rose hedge around the patio or deck, or in an area you pass on the way to the mailbox or the garage.
• As an anchor or specimen in a mixed border, with perennials and flowering shrubs.
• As a bed of roses or rose border. Select roses in the same color palette, such as pinks or reds, planted in groupings.
• In a summer container, especially roses that stay in the 4-foot-tall range or shorter. The rose can be the only plant in the pot, or it can have annuals or vines to flow over the edges.
• As a climber. Many shrub roses can be grown against a fence or trellis, even if the plant is not labeled as a climber.
'Charlotte' has upward-facing flowers with an open cup shape and a soft yellow hue, which mixes easily with other colors in the garden. It has a strong, tea rose fragrance. Hardy to USDA Zone 4, it grows to 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide.
Here, the fully-open fragrant flowers of 'The Generous Gardener' are set off beautifully by less mature buds and semi-open flowers. As the more advanced flowers fade, remove them to enjoy the still-maturing flowers.
Tips from Michael Marriott for Cutting Roses for the Vase
•Use sharp, clean snips, and cut the flowers early in the day when they are fully hydrated. Cut flowers that still have tight centers, but with outer petals opened. Select the longest, strongest stems.
•When in the garden, place cut roses immediately in a clean container filled with cool water.
•Once indoors, put the stems under water and snip off another inch.
•Remove lower leaves.
•Add enough cool water to nearly fill a clean vase. Arrange the stems so they are in the water.
Michael Marriott, technical manager rosarian at David Austin Roses, recommends planting the shrubs 2-3 feet apart to give the illusion of one large shrub.
•Add a flower preservative to the water, which Marriott says keeps bacteria growth at bay, improves water flow and helps flowers open and last longer.
•Place the vase in a cool place out of direct sunlight for the longest show.
•Replace the water every day or so to keep it fresh.
•Every few days, lift the flowers from the vase to snip off an inch or so from the stems so they can continue to take up water.
A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2016 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of davidaustinroses.com